For a movie that's supposed to be mysterious, exciting, and charming, "The Swindle" is instead predictable and dull. It's meant to be a light, twisty caper, the sort that you'd like to imagine Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn making. Yet it's a rather bland affair, with only the energy from a top notch cast and the light touch of a renowned filmmaker keeping the thing from deflating more quickly than it finally does.
The film is a celebration of the career of French New Wave legend Claude Chabrol; "The Swindle," released in 1997, was his fiftieth film. For such an anniversary, Chabrol took a playful turn, delivering not one of his trademark sinister thrillers, but instead a lightweight, old fashioned caper. It's an interesting change of pace for the writer/director, but things get a bit too lightweight, as if Chabrol and his cast were having such a good time visiting various exotic locations that small details like storytelling fell by the wayside.
Veteran actors Michel Serrault and Isabelle Huppert take the lead here, as small time con artists Victor and Betty. They make do swindling businessmen at casinos - she woos them and drugs them, they pass out, he arrives to steal some of their money, maybe a credit card number or driver's license. (Only stealing some, but not all, of the money, by the way, is their grand scheme; the hapless victim will merely think he got drunk, passed out, and in between, must've spent too much cash.) They're criminals of the overly nice variety.
The two stars, not surprisingly, work wonderfully together. They have built a relationship that seems to go beyond the edges of the film - there are things they say with their eyes, their bodies, their wordless reactions that people who have known each other for so long need not say aloud. From the first moment we see them in action, we understand their relationship, even as the movie intentionally leaves their backgrounds vague. Feisty, bickering, loving. They are a team, a well-oiled machine of low level grifting.
Their next job, something involving a dentists convention, gets sidetracked when Betty reveals to Victor that she's been setting up her own con on the side, one involving a courier (François Cluzet) and a briefcase loaded with five million Swiss francs. It is here the movie loses steam; "The Swindle" is a film about character, not much for plot, yet there's a whole middle section that demands a focus on the intertwined schemings that Chabrol is unwilling to tackle. The whole thing becomes a matter of who's-conning-whom, but Chabrol barely seems interested in this sort of thing. And so we go through the motions of double- and triplecrosses, but without any of the verve one would expect from such a thing.
In this mode, the film works well in bite-sized chunks - a lovely interlude in which Betty and Victor take in a dance recital, a cozy scene on the beach. But these are merely moments where the story steps aside and lets the sights and sounds of Europe take over for a while. Or, perhaps, little asides in which the performers get to work in some interesting character detail, or Chabrol offers up a directorial flourish that wins a smile or two.
But as a story, there's just not much there. The bag-swapping and unknown intentions we're tossed go nowhere at all, as if Chabrol has assumed you'd be able to figure it all out anyway, so why bother trying? We get a lengthy, darker final act involving a menacing mobster, played by Jean-François Balmer. His scenes are fun as a character piece (Balmer enjoys chewing up the scenery, and we enjoy watching him), yet when the scene finally ends, you realize that all you've watched was ten seconds of story unfold slowly over ten minutes.
As such, "The Swindle" (the French title, "Rien ne va plus," translates very roughly as "from now on, nothing goes") is disappointing and unfulfilling. We get our lush locales and suave stars, but the movie also promises a heap of complicated plotting that simply never arrives. It's fun to watch Huppert and Serrault work off each other in charming ways, but by the time the closing scene finally plays out, you realize just how empty the whole thing truly is. As a cinematic confection from one of the masters, it's cotton candy, evaporating before it ever gets good.
New Yorker's anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) transfer is a bit on the soft-and-fuzzy side, fitting with the grainy film stock used. A few shots throughout reveal some edge enhancement or artifacting as well.
The French soundtrack comes in clearly in Dolby stereo. Optional English subtitles are available.
For those who enjoyed the dance scene seen in the movie, the DVD offers an excerpt (around a minute and a half) from the 1907 silent film "La Farfale," which captured a similar dance, enhanced with hand-painted film frames allowing the dancer's attire to change colors throughout.
The film's French trailer is also included (although without subtitles), as are a handful of previews for other New Yorker releases.
A couple of delightful performances and some fun winking on the part of the director make "The Swindle" worth a quick peek for those interested in breezier Continental capers, and hardcore Chabrol fans looking for some of his lesser works. But it's such a letdown on the story side of things that it's not worth more than a one-time visit. Rent It.