Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Claude Chabrol helped ring out the old century with this slick and affectionate tale of small-time con artists. Reaching back before the deadly serious crime films of the past decade or so, The Swindle seeks to remind us of the fashionable crimes and sophisticated criminals that became extinct in the 1970s. The plot is a true guessing game that gives us little certainty about anything -- we don't even know what the exact relationship is between our enterprising partners in thievery. The Swindle could go in the direction of light comedy or turn into an ironic bloodbath, a possibility that keeps us on our seats throughout.
Betty and Victor (Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault) run a careful con-and-theft racket: He minds the details while she seduces and then drugs unsuspecting marks at swanky hotel conventions. Betty takes off for a week on her own, but when she meets up with Victor again in Switzerland, she has pulled him into a much riskier con game of her own devising -- separating corporate treasurer Maurice (François Cluzet) from the five million francs he's already stolen from his employers. Not only that, but Betty has told Maurice who Victor is and what they do together; and that Victor will have to be 'let down easy.' That's when the whole plan becomes an enigma -- as neither man can be sure whom Betty is really working with. The fate of the 5 million will be determined by an elaborate game of switcheroo with fancy attaché cases. The trio flies to Guadeloupe with the booty -- and is intercepted by thugs who may or may not be agents of Maurice's old partners.
The Swindle immediately reminds us of the legendary gentleman thieves, the kind that exist only in romance novels and Hollywood movies. The classic example is Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, a wonderful picture about a pair of amoral, light-fingered lovers that seemingly steal from one other as a substitute for on-camera sex. Cary Grant probably made the most of larceny as a romantic bait, in Charade and
To Catch a Thief. The secret to sexy thievery is that no matter how hard one tries to give the impression of heartless avarice, higher motives prevail. The guilty pleasure of crime is equated with the guilty pleasure of É pleasure.
Chabrol keeps the wit high and the temperature cool, as his pair of tricksters dodges the slings and arrows of their profession. They have to keep changing names and stay on the move, obviously, choosing casinos and hotels far from their Paris home base. The much older Victor is never at a loss for words, but must literally dive under tables to avoid the advances of a scary Italian widow (Mony Dalmès). Their work is always low-key, as just being recognized in the wrong place by the wrong people could spell disaster. Above all, Victor realizes that the secret to success is to not be too greedy. Having drugged a poor mark, Betty is ready to clean him out. Victor takes only a portion of the man's ready cash. When their victim awakens, he'll be too concerned about having his infidelity discovered to notice what's missing from his wallet.
Of course, all of this gentleman-theft mythos is the bunk. How can our enterprising couple be certain that their mark doesn't have a medical condition that might conflict with their knockout potion? Taking chances isn't so charming when other people's lives are put at risk.
Betty and Victor's cozy relationship goes haywire when she pulls him into a much wilder and riskier con, with a prize of millions instead of thousands. Victor is naturally concerned when it becomes clear that Betty is hiding almost as much from Victor as she is from their all-too-trusting victim Maurice. Or is Victor really the victim? Movies of this kind rarely reverse their twists more than twice, but knowing Claude Chabrol, we can be sure that something completely unexpected will happen. Reading the characters doesn't work in this case, because we don't even know the exact relationship between Betty and Victor. Are they lovers, or his he her father? They're both such experts at hiding their feelings under pressure that we can't be sure of their reactions --- and they can't be sure of each other's, either. Betty's chameleon-like surface is as deceptive as the alluring wings of the dancer hired to entertain the dentists at the Alpine resort.
Just as things are going bad and they're being manhandled by ruthless gangsters, we remember Victor's earlier lessons about 'keeping things fun' and 'avoiding greed.' The big-time beckons, and this delightful odd couple fall into the trap just like the sucker they have adjudged Maurice to be. We don't know if they're going to get themselves out. In fact, we don't know who exactly is in the trap and who is not!
The Swindle is a smooth production that changes exotic locales as many times as Isabelle Huppert changes her hairstyle. 1 Chabrol keeps the focus on his characters without imposing a clever directorial plan, as might Hitchcock. There is a rather disturbing moment involving a ... well, it's stronger than what one would expect in a truly light thriller, like, say, Hopscotch. In fact, when the screws begin to tighten just about everyone is threatened with considerable violence.
Like Hitchcock, Chabrol plays with what information he hides and what he reveals. We know when facts have been withheld or scenes are not shown (like an opportunity to switch attaché cases), forcing us to stay in a perpetual guessing game. The only possible fault Savant found in the show is that, after showing a refreshing economy for ninety minutes, Chabrol draws out the denoument over the better part of a reel. This is one story that calls out to be resolved as cleverly as it was begun.
Thirty years into her career, Isabelle Huppert continues to captivate and generates considerable affection with her elder partner Michel Serrault. Many viewers will remember Serrault from the original French La cage aux folles, but he's also known for considerably darker roles, like the fiendish murderer in the 1990 Doctor Petiot. Anybody familiar with that film can be forgiven for being suspicious of any character Serrault plays!
New Yorker's DVD of Claude Chabrol's 50th film The Swindle is a beautiful enhanced transfer with perfect color and audio. Eduardo Serra's rich cinematography and intimate lighting schemes give the story a needed sheen of opulence; when we see an upscale hotel lobby, it looks upscale. For extras, the disc includes an original European trailer and a 1907 hand-tinted film called Le Farfale, with 'wing' dancers performing the exact same moves that Brygida Ochaim displays in the movie.
Generous, uncredited insert essay notes discuss The Swindle from a number of angles, telling us that confirmed Chabrol fans will recognize many references to his past filmography. Whatever they might be, they certainly don't get in the way of enjoying this engaging and funny thriller.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Swindle rates:
Supplements: Le Farfale (dance excerpt from 1907 silent film), Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2006
1. Look up the history of the French island of Guadeloupe on Wikipedia and you'll find that it changed hands between the French, English and Swedish repeatedly too. International diplomacy (con-game thievery?) to further national interests never changes.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson