Fear the ‘Tinder Swindler’

Netflix’s true-crime documentary is candy for people who love watching romantic misery

When is the perfect man not the perfect man? When he’s a conman. Netflix’s new hit Tinder Swindler, while by no means a brilliant work of art, does most of its true-crime peers better in its use of original phone-videos and photos from the seductions that led to the financial ruin of three women. All they wanted to do was help their man out, and all they got in return was bankruptcy and grief. And we get to see a whole bunch of it happening in real time. For us misery-mongers, it’s a lot to slaver over. Now let’s see that slick dude making a kissy-face at the camera again.

This is the set-up: Norwegian woman Cecilie Fjellhøy, living in London and looking for true love on the Tinder app, swipes right to show her interest in the apparently high-rolling Simon Leviev. He’s done the same for her, so it’s a match. After that, it’s the whirlwind romance you only see in movies, swept from the five-star hotel coffeeshop in London to Sofia, Bulgaria, via private jet, there to spend a magical night in another fabulous hotel. Cecilie’s phone camera chronicles much of the action.

Cecilie, though, does have some questions. Why is Simon’s ex and their daughter joining them on the flight to Sofia? And it seems odd that the two of them should join her and Simon in a car from airport to hotel. But the ex has only good things to say about Simon, and after a flight where she’s tasted caviar for the first time, Cecilie is more than willing to overlook a peculiarity here and there, and just live the dream.

In the case of Pernilla Sjöholm, there’s no whirlwind romance, even though the so-called Simon flies her from Stockholm to Amsterdam for their first date. We don’t get more than a photo or two from their tour around town, complete with sushi lunch complete with, yes, caviar that the restaurant has reserved just for Simon. Director Felicity Morris does a decent job recreating the posh atmosphere, and stages her interviews with Simon’s marks very well. As Pernilla tells the camera, she looked him up, and concluded that he works for his tycoon father’s diamond business. So they stop in at a diamond museum and he holds forth on the mining and processing of the gems.

At the end of the date, Pernilla feels a bond with him, not a romantic one, but as though she’s known him for years. They agree to stay friends, and she returns to Sweden. What follows is flurry of correspondence via Tinder, with Simon serving as her “battery charger,” as she puts it, even flying over to have coffee with her once because she was having a bad day. He is the prince in her life, with whom she has a special connection.

There is, of course, a swindle in the works, or two of them, to be precise. We see Simon and bodyguard, Peter, at a club in Stockholm, surrounded by what Pernilla calls “champagne girls.” We see the hotel room in Amsterdam to which Simon has summoned Cecilie, so that she can deliver him the $25,000 that will help him escape his enemies. It’s her own phone-footage, after they’ve been warned that those enemies are closing in. The curtains are drawn. The lamps switch off. All is dark and still.

It may not add up to ground-breaking cinema, but it does a good job of conveying one woman’s experience, the wash of conflicting emotions rushing through her. It’s not that she’s gullible or naïve. This man, who showed her the high life, and made promises of a happy future, and was so attentive and caring, is just that good. It would be heartbreaking, if we didn’t know from the get-go that something like this was going to happen.

Before long, Pernilla is jet-setting around Europe with Simon and his Russian-model girlfriend. And Cecilie is bleeding money to pay for it all. When things finally come to a head, as she recounts to the filmmakers, she is grief-stricken and confused: “I still wanted him to be true, you know? I don’t understand how someone can be so fucking evil. I felt that he knew me.” That, of course, is the rub: that someone so evil did know you all too well, and all too well how to manipulate you, and then tossed you aside when he had no more use for you. And Cecilie still has nine creditors to contend with, and threatening voice mails from her ex-lover coming in on her mother’s home phone. So what else is there to do but collapse.

Suffice it to say that as Simon is working the same con on Pernilla. Cecilie goes to the press, to VG, a Norwegian tabloid. In the interviews the filmmakers conduct with them, and in footage of their trip to Israel to pin down Simon’s real identity, we see dogged reporters who know a hot story when they see one. They track down Pernilla, and while she and Cecilie bond over shared suffering, the story breaks hard. And who else should read it but Simon’s final mark, as she turns out to be, Ayleen Charlotte. “He also took me to a five-star hotel on the first date,” she says. And she’s already out $140,000 to the man she thought was so deeply considerate and caring, the love of her life. This time, though, it’s a hell of a lot of fun watching what happens, instead of mostly pathetic.

“I was going to swindle the Tinder Swindler,” Ayleen tells the camera. He’s wanted in seven countries, unable to perform his usual cons, with no one else to trust. The voicemails he leaves her almost make you feel sorry for him, though not really. It’s delicious, in fact, watching Ayleen do all she can to get her money back and to get not-Simon in jail where he belongs. You can tell that Morris and company relished this segment. They really rub it in on the poor schmuck, and it’s comical.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses a heart, as the saying goes. Or $250,000, give or take. What Tinder Swindler writes in great big letters is what anybody who’s ever spent time on those dating apps knows, or should know, and it’s not (as the great Daniel Johnston said), True Love Will Find You in the End. No, its more like True Love Will Make You Wear Depends. Even if what you’re after is just a deep and sincere friendship, that’s not something that comes in an afternoon. You, and your significant brother or sister, age into it.

And if you’re lucky enough to have found a person you think is worth sharing your life with, that’s not something that’s going to happen in the course of a flight from Amsterdam to Munich. It’s going to take years. There’s no blaming, of course, those who’ve had an expert seduce them. But what we see, in the seeming joy of their photos and videos and texts with a man who had no love for them at all, is that our own emotions can deceive us. Maybe it’s better to start off a skeptic than to end up the fool.

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G.L. Ford

G. L. Ford lives and works in Victoria, Texas. He is the author of Sans, a book of poems (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). He edited the 6x6 poetry periodical from 2000 to 2017, and formerly wrote a column for the free paper New York Nights.

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