“The Tinder Swindler,” Netflix’s latest documentary about a master scam artist and his elaborate Ponzi scheme, opens with a different kind of scam — the myth of prince charming. In explaining what she hoped to get out of Tinder, naive Norwegian Cecilie cites Disney movies like “Beauty and the Beast.” Like Belle, she was also a small town girl living in a lonely world — why couldn’t she find her own beast-turned-prince? Unfortunately for Ceclie and countless other (mostly blonde) women, her prince charming turned out to be a beast.
Though always a classic in the cinematic imagination, con artist stories have been particularly in vogue as of late. Just look at the flurry of projects about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (both Jennifer Lawrence and Amanda Seyfried will take a crack at her oddball cadence), or Shonda Rhimes’ upcoming Netflix show about faux-socialite Anna Delvey. Though “The Tinder Swindler” is unlikely to capture the same degree of schadenfreude-flecked fascination, it lays out its satisfying story at a decent pace to capitalize on the trend.
“You can find a bit of everything on Tinder,” Cecilie (pronounced “Cecilia”) says in her upbeat interview, which takes place in a generic upscale restaurant, the red leather booth obscured by low romantic lighting. “We are all looking for that diamond in the rough.”
When she matches with Simon, a dark-haired playboy with an impish grin, she’s intrigued by his photos on private jets and exotic beaches. (Shared interests, like beaches, are one of her dating prerequisites.) He has to leave town that day, but would she join him for a coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel London? Though Cecilie is a bit uncomfortable waiting in the swanky lobby, surrounded by people with money, she’s pleasantly surprised by Simon’s good looks and is immediately taken with him. When he invites her on a private jet to dash off to Amsterdam for the day, she is too overcome to question anything.
Director Felicity Morris’ documentary, much like their relationship, unfolds mostly on WhatsApp, Simon’s preferred mode of communication. Through his clipped texts and voice memos that range from deadpan to agitated, we get a sense of Simon. His nonchalant affect, his rote sentimentality, and his ambiguously accented English (which we later learn is Israeli). To the outside eye, Simon is obviously engaging in classic love-bombing behavior: He sends standard red rose bouquets to Cecilie’s workplace, says he loves her within a month, and tells her he wants to marry her and have babies with her. She changes his name in her phone from “Simon Leviev” to “Simon <3,” her boyfriend.
Like any shrewd sociopath, Simon changes his behavior for each mark. Though he matches with Pernilla, this time a Swede, she doesn’t feel romantic toward him. Undeterred, Simon pursues her as a fried, inviting her to party with him in VIP rooms, yachts, and private jets. She tags along with Simon and his girlfriend, a “Russian model type.” She thinks he’s fun, enjoys his lifestyle, and begins to consider him a good friend. She likes that he’s a good listener, a rare quality in a man.
You can probably guess what happens next for both of these women. Having told them he is heir to a diamond fortune, Simon explains he’s run into trouble during a business deal in South Africa, and his life is in danger. He sends bloody photos of himself and his bodyguard, a man named Peter. They’ve taken all his credit cards, his banks have frozen his accounts, and he needs to borrow $25,000. He explains to Cecilie how she can take out a loan and draw cash from that, and has her call each company with his exact charges and locations to extend her credit limit. His texts become increasingly demanding, agitated, and distressing, which makes sense if he’s truly in a bad situation. Cecilie believes her boyfriend’s life is in her hands.
The film gains momentum once Cecilie and Pernilla wise up, and engage a team from Norwegian tabloid VG to look into the story. No longer the naive Disney princess, Cecilie is determined to expose Simon’s lies. Since his exploits occur in countries all across Europe (the movie plays, at times, like a Bourne film), his crimes appear relatively small in each jurisdiction, and police were unmotivated to investigate. Aided by an ace investigative team from VG, who come off as serious journalists in the movie, the women are able to confirm Simon’s location at least long enough to get a photo of him with Pernilla. Once the story broke, Simon’s face was plastered all over the internet, and his various aliases would be no good.
There’s no fairytale ending for the women in “The Tinder Swindler,” unless you count the pleasure they took in “seeing Simon squirm.” Simon Leviev, real name Shimon Hayut, was eventually extradited to Israel in late 2019, where he was sentenced to 15 months for fraud, of which he served five. He is currently a free man, and if his social media presence is to be believed, is living large with his model girlfriend. As for Cecilie, she’s still on Tinder.
“The Tinder Swindler” is currently streaming on Netflix.