PARIS (AP) — The man who nearly stole over 70 million euros from France's business and banking elite is a serial manipulator who sees fraud not as a crime but as a way of life, according to those behind a new film based on the con artist's exploits.
"Je Compte sur Vous" — released in English as "Thank You for Calling" — is based on the exploits of the French-Israeli Gilbert Chikli, who engineered rogue payments by phoning companies and pretending to be the firm's CEO or a French intelligence agent. Those behind the film, which was released in France on Dec. 30, describe Chikli as a chameleon of a man, a brazen charmer whose boasts suggest he has yet to abandon his criminal career.
"Chikli is an unstoppable seduction machine," said director Pascal Elbe in a recent interview in Paris. "For him it's a job, it's definitely not a con."
Chikli's heists were astounding in their daring. With a little background research and a well-placed phone call, Chikli could cajole or bluster his way into organizing the transfer of several hundred thousand, a million or even millions of euros to bank accounts in Dubai, Russia, China or Hong Kong.
His victims put down the phone convinced they were speaking to their boss or to a genuine French spy. One spoke of being taken in by a man with "an extremely powerful tone of voice and self-assurance." Two more were convinced — somehow — to withdraw cash and hand-deliver it to bars in Paris. When tricks or charm didn't work, Chikli turned to bullying; another employee was threatened with losing her job if she didn't immediately organize the transfer of nearly $2 million to the U.K.
"He adapts to his interlocutor, that's what's crazy," Elbe said. "He improvises. He reacts. He riffs off what you're saying and gives you back what you want to hear."
The idea for the film came from producer Isaac Sharry, who bought the rights to Chikli's story when he was still in French custody and visited him in Israel shortly after Chikli jumped bail. Chikli remains a wanted man in France, but today lives openly in Ashdod, a port town south of Tel Aviv. Israeli authorities refused to explain why Chikli is able to live freely in Israel.
Sharry said he wanted to speak to Chikli in depth to ask how "bankers who make thousands of euros and went to fancy schools let themselves be hoodwinked by a simple guy on the phone?"
The producer amassed 10 cassettes worth of tape which became the basis for a screenplay. Elbe was tapped as filmmaker and actor Vincent Elbaz was brought in to play the Chikli-like con artist at the center of the film. All three spent significant periods of time with the fraudster, trying to draw out the secrets of his trade and unwrap the mystery of his character.
Elbaz said he found it difficult to get access to the man behind the con.
"He adapts constantly his behavior to the other. It's constantly a lie," he said.
Whether Chikli has mended his ways is open to question. At one point, Elbaz said Chikli announced that there would be a sequel.
Elbaz said he warned Chikli off the idea. "The film is super and all but you have to sell millions and millions of tickets for it to be a sequel," he said.
Elbaz said Chikli replied: "No. We're going to do a sequel not because the film is going to be a success, but because of what I'm going to do next."
Contacted later by The Associated Press, Chikli denied the exchange ever took place.
Associated Press reporter Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.