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                                                        Flickhead
DVD Review
By Ray Young

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The Swindle

(Rien ne va plus)

Claude Chabrol’s mischievous crime and love story, now on DVD from New Yorker Video

Written and directed by Claude Chabrol. Cinematography by Eduardo Serra. Edited by Monique Fardoulis. Original music by Matthieu Chabrol. With Isabelle Huppert, Michel Serrault, François Cluzet, Jean-François Balmer. 105 minutes. Originally released in 1997.

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    With the release of La Cérémonie in 1995, Claude Chabrol caught the critics and public unawares. Although he’d had successes with both Une affaire de femmes (The Story of Women, 1988) and Madame Bovary (1991), La Cérémonie was Chabrol’s return to form after a creative slump in the 1980s, to the ambiguous outskirts of the thriller genre. His forty-ninth feature, it had some fans hoping his fiftieth would be a milestone and masterpiece.
    Instead he delivered Rien ne va plus, released in America as The Swindle (1997), a wry comedy lodged in a portrait of con artists, and a decided departure from the previous film’s chilly class struggle and manipulative mind games. As everyone that has seen a movie with mind games knows, the games just keep on coming and coming. But part of the man’s allure has always been his gleeful resolve to derail expectation. For those who (perhaps wrongly) measure Chabrol to Hitchcock, however, one comparison seemed obvious: if La Cérémonie was Chabrol’s Frenzy, then The Swindle was his Family Plot.
    While Hitchcock keeps feeding us information to move from point A to point B, Chabrol is drawn to the subtle quirks of his characters, their meals and environments, with virtually no interest in plot Macguffins or climactic payoffs. Although this has unsettled and disappointed people for decades, the director couldn’t care less. (His Bovary was a rare excursion into Merchant Ivory territory.) Hence, The Swindle, a peripheral member of a con game sub-genre that would include Barbet Schroeder’s Tricheurs (1984), Stephen Frears’s The Grifters (1990) and David Mamet’s House of Games (1987) and Heist (2001), shares absolutely none of their calculated tension, nor does it explore that fastidiousness and passion that motivates obsessed, edgy people.
    So when Betty, who’s sometimes called Elizabeth (Isabelle Huppert), carries out her fleecing schemes with the older Victor, who’s sometimes called the Colonel (Michel Serrault, twenty-five years her senior), the script casually sidesteps the mechanics of the sting to gaze at a pair who could be lovers, or who might be father and daughter. Though she calls him ‘daddy’ on occasion, we’re never quite sure who they are or what they mean to each other—which, when you think of it, is integral to the art of the con.
    As Victor eyes her, concerned and jealous (she’s gone solo to bilk an affluent courier and potential bed partner played by François Cluzet), Chabrol drifts over them as they sit in an audience before a strange and tranquil hotel show, a staged butterfly dance, an improvisational piece of choreography that may have crossed the director’s path in nightclubs ages ago when patrons still remembered Loïe Fuller. It’s not the first time Chabrol has relied on a musical interlude to monitor reactions and idiosyncrasies, and it’s evident that, while music may calm the savage beast, it provides only temporary relief: the piano duets between a father and his would-be daughter in Merci pour le chocolat (2000); the uneasy double date taking in stripper Dolly Bell in Les Bonnes femmes (1960); the cacophonous ‘concert’ by the tenants in Les Biches (1968); the doomed family watching a TV presentation of Don Giovanni in La Cérémonie.

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Top: Brygida Ochaim performing the elegant Butterfly Dance in The Swindle. Above: A scene from the hand-colored 1907 film, Farfalle (Italian for ‘butterfly’), which is included on the New Yorker DVD of the Chabrol film.
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    Chabrol’s fragments of plot in The Swindle (he wrote the script as well as directed) levitate as a cloud moving over a veiled critique of human foibles, where love is indefinable and uncertain. Do the antiseptic hotel rooms and snowy northern exteriors reflect the sterility of Betty and Victor’s relationship? Could be. But equally elusive are the genre conventions that the filmmaker can surely employ without breaking a sweat. When the couple dupe a hotel guest in the opening vignette, the set up of scenes and the rhythm of the editing are masterful, pointing toward a dramatic conclusion that never arrives. In its place, the showdown with the professional thief, Mr. K (Jean-François Balmer) is a nod to Kafka, the world of compulsion, self will run riot, and persecution…but is barely connected to the threads leading up to it than to Chabrol’s understated condemnation of bourgeois control. That the scene is overlong, overplayed and in need of paring reveals his lack of objectivity (and a slight clumsiness with broad comedy), over a theme that has dogged the director since the late 1950s and his first films, Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959).
    Back then Chabrol was still an active, published film critic and a stickler for auteurist principles; and if he judged, say, Howard Hawks, on his complete body of work rather than the individual films, it may be necessary for us to look at The Swindle as a small field off to the side of a large canvas. It’s doubtful that Chabrol ever had a formal game plan for his career, or that its disparate band of pictures would eventually add up to a whole. But if we allow the deviation of character and the subversion of genre, then a curious, serpentine creature arises out of these muted portraits—but very little can be gleaned from one, two or perhaps even three viewings of a single film, especially one as opaque as The Swindle. (It took this viewer about four rounds with the chatty La Fleur du mal [2003] to appreciate its correlation of inbreeding with bourgeois entitlement.)
    For nearly thirty years, Chabrol has cast Isabelle Huppert in more than half a dozen pictures, her pasty, freckled indifference working to camouflage some unspoken burning desire often hinted at but rarely explored or discussed. (The actress—who can work with her choice of directors—once admitted to a personal commitment and would do any of Chabrol’s pictures regardless of what the scripts were about.) While the actress is not easily sold as a tart, her Betty is a skillfully realized creation, snug and secure alongside Victor while still credible as a kind of trophy in the paradoxical and strained presence of Cluzet’s Maurice.
    Michel Serrault, who first worked with Chabrol in Les Fantômes du shapelier (The Hatter’s Ghost, 1982), imbues Victor with the faraway look of someone planning his next move as he’s being haunted by specters from the past. His one solace—fatty, greasy foods—becomes a running gag for the director, whose obsession with cuisine long ago established a recurring leitmotif. When Victor receives a charity gyro from a street vendor (played by Chabrol regular Henri Attal), it’s a slap at his pride and one of the film’s several jabs at ego.
    Whether The Swindle is or isn’t ‘lesser’ Chabrol turns irrelevant when placed together with the rest of his work. On the heels of La Cérémonie and preceding Au coeur du mensonge (The Color of Lies, 1999), this loose, ostensibly freewheeling caper comedy adds yet another piece to a puzzle that will likely remain unsolved as the years pass by and those of us who care grow old and die. We may criticize Chabrol now for not meeting the expectations of genre and convention, but in the end he’s simply demonstrating the uncertainties of reality and the shifting sands of time. He’s a brilliant social critic and satirist, one whose hunger for the truth remains as acute today as it ever was.

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  • Visit The Claude Chabrol Project