1997, NR, 105 min. Directed by St?phane Audran. Starring Francoise Cluzet, Michel Serrault, Isabelle Huppert.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., July 16, 1999
Even if -- especially if -- your movie tastes run to the aggressively stylish textures and Benzedrine-cranking narratives of young filmmakers such as Doug Liman, Guy Ritchie, and Danny Boyle, I call to your attention this 1997 film by 68-year-old French New Wave pioneer Claude Chabrol. Mind you, I'm not here to argue the intrinsic superiority of understatement over flamboyance. Art's a big tent, after all, and the pipe-bomb flingers deserve their place right alongside the rapier artistes. But Chabrol's uncannily subtle and suggestive movies do serve as powerful reminders of how little main force is actually required to pack a story with mystery, ambient tension, and psychological complexity. As with many of Chabrol's films, The Swindle achieves more of its emotional effect through what is hinted at than what is actually said or shown. The script, by Chabrol, revolves around the relationship between two modestly successful French con-gamers: an attractive fortyish woman named Betty (Huppert) and partner Victor (Serrault), a debonair older gent who, in a typical bit of Chabrolian ambiguity, might be her lover, father, mentor, or some kinky combination thereof. Most of the pair's scams involve Betty putting the femme-fatale moves on some patsy in a hotel bar, drugging his drink, then accompanying him to his room. After the Mickey kicks in, she and Victor rob him. (Invariably, they take only part of the dupe's money, leaving enough behind so that he's unsure whether he's been robbed.) For such a devious pair, Betty and Victor are surprisingly trusting of each other, scrupulously dividing their spoils and sharing all the details of their respective lives. So when Betty unexpectedly starts working a solo scam on a handsome Swiss guy named Maurice (Cluzet), Victor starts losing a bit of his arrogant assurance about where he stands with his sexy, increasingly independent-minded protégé. A fairly standard grifters' cross/doublecross setup drives the plot, but far more interesting is the extreme uncertainty that Chabrol introduces into the characters' intentions and motivations. Like the novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose material he adapted very successfully in The Cry of the Owl, Chabrol concocts intelligent, infinitely complex criminal characters who act out of such unorthodox motivations as slighted pride, insecurity, raging hubris, and simple misunderstanding. The Swindle's story develops slowly and matter-of-factly, but as with Chabrol's previous film, La Ceremonie, it builds up a powerful head of psychological tension toward the end, adding a late twist or two that shed further oblique light on the whole affair. Compared to Chabrol's La Ceremonie, which also featured Huppert, The Swindle has a much lighter, sometimes overtly comic feel, though the delightfully multilayered performances of Huppert and Serrault lend it a perverse, Hitchcockian kind of charm that's anything but sweet and innocuous. It'd be nice if more movies possessed these virtues, but the fact is that Chabrol (once slagged as a Hitchcock knockoff artist) is essentially inimitable -- a sole-source supplier of a refreshing, sui-generis filmmaking style. Appreciate him now, both for what he is and what he stubbornly refuses to be.