"So, you're screwed up too?"
Barbet Schroeder's sophisticated and savvy Tricheurs is a story about gambling, abusive relationships, and most importantly, cheating (which is what the title means, in French). The cheating goes far beyond the simple cheating in a casino, which is what the film is about—a tense hijink caper about a man and a woman trying to pull off a roulette scam. These people cheat one another, and cheat life, and cheat themselves out of a sense of happiness and satisfaction.
Luckily, Tricheurs, with an excellent transfer, great sound, and a modestly entertaining story, is a DVD that won't cheat you.
Facts of the Case
Superstitious gambler Elrich has been seduced by a lady who lives in the casino. In fact, she is the casino. Everyone in the casino knows who he is, and knows how he plays—almost suicidal. Elrich bets spectacularly, wins spectacularly, and loses absolutely everything in equally spectacular fashion.
After leaving the casino with a few coins in his pocket, he sees a lady walking in a red dress with the number seven on it, which is his lucky number. Her name is Suzie, and she is having an argument with a man. Elrich gallantly escorts her away, and procures her services as a good luck charm in the casino.
She becomes tangled within his web of addiction, and soon, they are head over heels in casinos, winning, losing, and desperately trying to stay ahead of the wheel. Unfortunately, the house always wins.
Elrich meets a man named Jorg, who is a professional cheat. Elrich himself is not a dishonest man, but is soon taken in by Jorg as an accomplice. Soon, Elrich is flying all over the world, pulling scams at casinos in exotic locations, making fortunes. Jorg pulls one scam too many, and is arrested in spectacular fashion.
Without Jorg, Elrich and Suzie decide to pull their own roulette scam, and in short order, have more money than they could ever know what to do with. But suddenly, Elrich is miserable—money, it would seem, was never what he was after. Playing is what matters, and more precisely, losing is what matters.
The cheating, the conning, and the winning—these things are easy for Elrich. The true challenge, the true gamble, will be avoiding his own nature, and not resorting to being the spectacularly suicidal player he has always been.
Tricheurs definitely feels like a spiritual predecessor to the recent film Owing Mahoney, and indeed, the two films have much in common. They both explore similar themes about desperately unhappy people who feel compelled to self-destruct, because they are addicted to the sensation. The world makes no sense to them when they win, but when they lose—then, they can finally be alive.
These gamblers do not play to win. They play to lose, as spectacularly as they can. For Elrich, victories are hollow. He explains to Suzie that life is so much sweeter when you have lost everything—food tastes better, the sunset is more vibrant, because you can truly appreciate it. When you win, everything feels the same, and it is empty.
As they become successful pulling off their scams, Elrich becomes more and more unhinged and unhappy, as his world begins to become indistinct. "I have a feeling [things are] going to go sour," he says miserably, "It happens everything when I win."
Tricheurs is a skillful film that manages to speak profoundly and eloquently through its troubled characters, and a quite enjoyable one at that. Schroeder comments, in his interview, that this is a film about losing, and about losers—and therefore, is an amazingly hard film to sell. Any film about gambling will, essentially, be about losers, and losing, and these are not subjects that people want to see. Nobody wants to relate to a loser.
And losers, they are. Jorg is so obsessed with the idea of being the best thief, the best gambler, and the absolute best, that he basically loses his grip and starts running madly through the casinos, screaming incoherencies. Elrich lives for the gamble, for the thrill of the casino, but when he wins, he is not happy. If not money, then what is he playing for? We meet Suzie in tow behind an abusive and violent man, from which Elrich springs her. Initially, she does not like gambling, but a week spent with Elrich changes everything. Suddenly, she cannot turn away from the gambling; and worse, Elrich is no better than the previous man—he is just as violent, short-tempered, and abusive. Her addiction, in a way, is even worse than Elrich's and Jorg's
The tragedy of these characters is palatable. These are battered individuals whose lives intersect not out of personal interest, but out of necessity. They need one another—clearly, at times, they do not even like one another. But they fulfill a need, a purpose, and they all feed of one another. Their addictions become justified. These are interesting demons, and they make for an entertaining and riveting story, to say the least.
The main character, Elric (played by Jaques Dutronc, who I swear, is the French version of Gary Oldman) plays the tortured, "happy when he is winning, a violent bastard when he is losing" gambling addict quite well, and most of the performances in this movie are quite well done. Occasionally, the ham gets laid on a bit thick, especially during violent outbursts in the casino, yelling inane things like "Casinos are the real thieves!" while actually leaping from table to table, stealing chips.
This film, a joint release between HVE and Janus Films, is advertised under the moniker of The Classic Collection. Being a Janus Films release and all, these DVDs feels vaguely like they could have been a full-blown Criterion release, if they had eaten their spinach.
This DVD certainly has a distinct Criterion-esque vibe about it. The transfer and audio are quite top-notch and on par with such, but Tricheurs lacks the extras, the authority, the spine number, and of course, the bragging rights of a proper Criterion disc.
Oh, yes. One other thing Tricheurs lacks from its Criterion brethren is the stiff price tag. Can anyone say "bargain"?
I do like that HVE treated the subtitling in Tricheurs with sophistication. Many movies have a problem with "over-subtitling"—that is, every small social nicety and phrase and drink order and barked command and simple greeting gets its own subtitle, which is unnecessary, and a bit insulting to the viewer. Most of us can understand much from a film simply by watching the nuances of the characters (if he stands in the middle of the street and hollers at a yellow car that stops for him, odds are, he said something to the effect of "Taxi!"). This excessive subtitling can be cumbersome. Tricheurs has a great balance in its subtitling. The words flow well without ever feeling overemphasized or burdensome or excessive. Very few liberties are taken with the subtitling, and the translation is very well written.
Video quality is quite superb. Grey levels can get washed out from time to time, but overall, colors are very well represented, especially the reds and greens. This makes the casino shots quite exceptional. The occasional large tear and defect from the original source do spoil the image, but these are minimal, and the transfer itself is clearly cleaned up and quite sparkling as a whole. There are no problems with jagged edges, edge artifacts, or the like, and the bitrate for the film stays between 8.5 and 9.5 Mbps the entire film.
The sound is also quite excellent. The buzzing of the crowds, the slap of the chips hitting the felt tables, and most importantly, the spinning and clamoring of the roulette wheel swirling and clinking is marvelously ambient and vibrant, with each sound full and completely articulate. Despite being a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 mix (in the native French), the mixing is marvelously full and dynamic. The occasional crackles of the soundtrack occur, especially in the first five minutes of the film, and clearly, the source material is slightly damaged during these segments. The soundtrack, a smokey jazz number that feels orchestrated by Alfred Hitchcock, is marvelously subtle and quite suitable for the picture.
Though the packaging advertises a robust three extra features, the DVD, for reasons unbeknownst to this humble reviewer, only includes a meager two features. The original theatrical trailer is always a fun treat, though it includes no subtitles, so be wary. Secondly, an interview with director Barbet Schroeder is included, which is a short (eight and a half minutes) look into the director's own personal musings and inspirations behind the film. In excellent English, he explains how his own friend's gambling problems directly inspired the creation of the central protagonist in the film.
This friend—who in an ironic twist of fate, appears in the film not as a gambler, but as the casino manager—would sneak down to the casino, after hours, and start playing with feverous intensity. Not only that, he would actually start to cheat the very casino that the film was being shot in, jeopardizing the entire production. Not a bad interview, but a bit short.
The third feature, an essay by gambling specialist and author Christopher Pawlicki, is labeled on the packaging but nowhere to be found on the disc. Therefore, it scores rather poorly in the final judgment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is always interesting to watch a film that stands on the very threshold of becoming incredibly dated, prior to its passing forever into antiquity. Now, some films hold up exceptionally well with age, managing to stay fresh and modern and relevant, despite the technology in the film falling hideously out of date, the fashion falling into thrift stores across the country and purchased decades later by your future children, and the set designs resembling something out of either a Norman Rockwell painting or a porno film (hey, it depends on how old a film we're talking here).
Looking for an example? One that springs immediately to mind is Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation—a fantastic film, but incredibly embarrassing in a modern-day context. Man, watching them crank up those tube amp receivers just gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. The technology in a film can become so dated sometimes that in a modern context, it becomes more difficult to relate to directly. This can adversely affects the pleasure in watching the film (though admittedly, the older the film gets, the more it gains back in "kitsch" factor—an external variable that I shan't address here.)
Filmed in 1983, Tricheurs has the distinct vibe of a film about to graduate early into the class of the forgotten. While the clothes and the locations are suitably ambiguous and unassuming to avoid ridicule in the coming years and decades, the constructed reality of a casino in Tricheurs bears such little resemblance to a modern-day casino as to be laughable. The notion that such primitive technology could be effectively utilized to defraud a modern-day casino, if you were to try and use it, would probably give the pit bosses a nostalgic laugh, inspiring them to tell you a story about their father, who, coincidentally, was also a pit boss, and the last guy who tried to pull a stunt like that, and so on, and you would enjoy a nostalgic trip down memory lane before you went straight to jail.
I mean, for Bob's sake, they have six black-and-white cameras on the casino floor. A modern-day casino has more cameras in the third stall of the ladies washroom alone.
In terms of chronological embarrassment, Tricheurs is not quite there yet, by any means—but I fear for its future.
A sharp release, Tricheurs crams excellent value into a modest price, considering the excellent, Criterion-esque vibe of the disc. You feel like you really get your money's worth. And while the film itself may not be worthy of being a Criterion, it is still an enjoyable piece of cinema, and worth a look. It has style, and class, and its nuances are subtle, but quite enjoyable. If gambling films are to your liking, check out Tricheurs before you cash your chips in.
Take a chance and spin the roulette wheel with Tricheurs—the film is a subtle, entertaining and almost campy cinematic experience, though not quite worthy of being a classic. Still, it is most excellent; the film is skillfully directed, the DVD presentation is a sharp one, and overall, Tricheurs is worth your consideration.
The court shall reconvene next week, in Vegas. Dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Interview with Director Barbet Schroeder
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