One boring afternoon, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart founded the "vaguement nouveau mais plutôt vieux chapeau" school of cinema. Class met this morning at 8 A.M. Too bad you missed it.
"I'm a small-time con artist…We're humble and well aware of our limits. We've never tried to step out of our league."—Victor
The Swindle (known as Rien ne va Plus in French) is the 50th feature by director Claude Chabrol (The Bridesmaid), made in 1997. Chabrol made his mark as a critic, writing extensively on Alfred Hitchcock before trying his own hand at the thriller genre. Chabrol became a founder of the "nouvelle vague" (new wave) school of French cinema along with other writers for Cahiers du Cinéma.
This is my second foray into Chabrol's cinematic world, having reviewed Who's Got the Black Box? (La Route de Corinthe), which he made 30 years earlier. While the earlier film was more of a straight-ahead adventure thriller, The Swindle uses the thriller's conventions as a backdrop for a story of two con artists—Betty and Victor—as they eye a chance for a big score. Although I haven't seen his entire body of work, it's clear there's been a good deal of development in Chabrol's directing style over the years, even when comparing two light thrillers.
Facts of the Case
"You're luckier than me," Betty (Isabelle Huppert, I Heart Huckabees) tells Robert Chatillon as they sit together at the roulette table. When he tries her numbers, his luck changes for the worse as if to prove it. Robert still is willing to buy Betty a drink; it's then that his luck truly changes for the worse.
Betty calls his calling—dealing in lawn equipment—"poetic," a sure sign that she's up to no good. When Robert gets up to buy her a pack of smokes, Betty slips something in his drink, then she coaxes him into inviting her to his room. When he's out cold, her confederate Victor (Michael Serrault, La Cage Aux Folles) arrives to go through the victim's wallet, taking his gambling winnings and forging a check from his checkbook.
"It's the principle behind taxes, but they're even more subtle," Victor says, explaining his art.
No, Betty and Victor aren't revenuers. They're swindlers, traveling Europe in a small RV to arrive at conventions and relieve dentists, salesmen, and other square types of their excess cash. They agree to part for a few days before heading for the next confab; Victor spends it walking the Paris streets and watching reality TV (sadly, it's a blight that has spread beyond our shores), but a phone call from Betty lets him know she's spent the time with a man.
The man is Maurice (François Cluzet, Chocolat), the handsome treasurer for an "international business group." When he joins Betty, Victor finds out that Betty has been spending the last year or so gaining Maurice's trust, since he's a courier who carries large amounts of money in briefcases cuffed to his wrist. He's transferring 5 million Swiss francs to the Antilles and she's planning to divert it to her own pockets. Better still, Maurice appears to be planning his own rerouting of the currency.
Victor is wary. "Frankly, I think the guy's a fool—and fools are often vicious," he tells Betty.
Still, Victor joins Betty's scheme and soon finds the money in his hands. When Victor and Betty realize that Maurice isn't their only problem, the stakes get higher and the situation turns tense.
If you watch thrillers, the story here will be familiar. What won't be familiar are some of Claude Chabrol's techniques. The pacing in the first part of the movie is leisurely compared to a similar film here in the States, taking time to build its characters through small moments, like the discovery that Betty has been getting to know Maurice while in disguise and without telling Victor, making her what actress Isabelle Huppert calls a "chameleon," even to her partner, as the booklet accompanying the DVD says.
Chabrol also shows us the big picture in sweeping panoramas before zeroing in on his characters. This makes for some sweeping backdrops but also clues us in on the characters' place in the world and what they do not yet know. His camera angles were simpler here than in Who's Got the Black Box?, my previous experience in the world of Chabrol, since he's focusing on the characters here.
On the sound side, Chabrol mostly relies on ambient noise; the background music usually comes from records or, in one case, a stage performance. This makes his one scene with music in the background into a touching statement rather than giving it the music video feel it often has in American pictures. On a plane, the background chatter provides commentary. Someone on a plane's talking about the news media: "They hide some of the facts and misconstrue the truth. He's also talking about movie thrillers, it would seem. When Chabrol wants background music for a scene of Victor watching Betty and Maurice together, he sets it at a dance performance.
Isabelle Huppert and Michael Serrault make a genuinely charming couple here, even as they play characters who aren't so charming. They seem to genuinely care about each other and look out for each other, though they don't realize how much they care until this caper. François Cluzet's Maurice is convincing as a con victim who's interesting enough that Betty might just fall for him. Later in the film, watch for Jean-François Balmer (Madame Bovary) as Monsieur K, Maurice's Tosca-loving boss.
The picture and sound quality are excellent, although the ambient sound takes a few moments to get used to.
The extras are sparse, but there's something unusual: a clip from "La Farfale," the 1907 dance performance that is recreated in the movie. The colors are meant to be unusual, by the way. The commentary comes in a booklet here, with comments from Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert, and a French theatrical trailer (sorry, no subtitles) rounds out the package. The booklet lets us in on a bonus: Since this is Claude Chabrol's 50th movie, references to his other films have made their way into this one. There's no retrospective on his works, but the booklet refers to Chabrol as "famously anti-pomp," so he may have preferred it that way.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're not into the leisurely pacing of this thriller, you might be lost by the time it picks up the pace and turns into a genuinely twisty tale.
The DVD case describes The Swindle as "wickedly humorous" and a "lark," but I'd refer to it as more of a character study. There are farcical moments, such as when Victor attempts to elude a widow who has fallen for him, but Claude Chabrol isn't going for laugh-out-loud funny here.
Like Hitchcock, Chabrol's an artist with an eye toward his audience, so you'll find The Swindle more accessible than many French films. It was his 50th film, but not his last, by the way.
Not guilty. I'll wrap this up by offering a toast to Claude Chabrol, a film critic who stepped outside his limits and pulled off the caper exquisitely.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• "La Farfale" (dance excerpt from 1907 short film)
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