From the Archives: Chabrol’s seductive ‘Swindle’ delivers right on the mark
Note: Five of French director Claude Chabrol’s later films — “Betty” (1992), “Color of Lies” (1999), “Night Cap” (2000), “The Swindle” (1997) and “Torment” (1994), all featuring some of France’s biggest stars of the era — screen as part of the “Chabrol 5 X 5” series. Below is The Times’ April 23, 1999, review of “The Swindle.”
When you sit down to watch the droll trickery of “The Swindle,” you know you’re in good hands. It stars the always-reliable Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault, and it is writer-director Claude Chabrol’s 50th film in 40 years.
More than anyone else, Chabrol carries on the Hitchcock tradition of civilized suspense, and thanks to his sardonic sense of humor and his unflagging curiosity about the quirks of human behavior, his films are always fresh, although this is one of his sunnier offerings.
A feeling of effortlessness suffuses “The Swindle,” and his stars match the ease with which Chabrol tells his clever story. This elegant film is a work of such assurance that we can share in the pleasure Chabrol and his actors clearly experienced in making it.
Wearing a black wig, pale makeup and lush red lipstick, Huppert’s glamorous Betty comes on like a hooker. She’s at a posh gambling casino, where she snags her latest mark, a middle-aged businessman (French TV superstar comedian Jackie Berroyer in a serious turn). She drugs him so that he’s out cold soon after she accompanies him to his hotel room.
All the while Serrault’s tuxedo-clad Victor has been keeping a watchful eye on Betty, and now he joins her to go over the pickings. Betty forges one of her mark’s checks, Victor steals some francs from his wallet — but not so many that he would notice right away — and for a disarming finishing touch, Betty writes him a farewell note saying she’s so sorry he fell asleep on her but she’s due back in Paris.
This is the kind of scam Betty and Victor have been pulling off for years, and a trusting warm father-daughter relationship has developed between them. In Paris, they share a handsome, tasteful flat that is surely luxurious, and they’ve prospered in a life of crime because they’ve practiced moderation assiduously under Victor’s firm direction. Understandably, the much-younger Betty, so confident of the criminal skills she has polished under Victor’s tutelage, has become eager to go after higher stakes.
On her own, she has come across Maurice (Francois Cluzet), treasurer for an international cartel, and seduced him into falling in love with her. Now she’s to rendezvous with him in the snowy Swiss resort of Sils-Maria, where she will start putting in motion her plan to part him from the 5 million in Swiss francs he’s to launder in Guadeloupe. Victor is at once alarmed and impressed, worried but ready to help out.
Chabrol swiftly suggests that Betty and Victor and maybe even Maurice are capable of myriad double-crosses as suspense starts building. To be sure, Victor’s fears that “we’re stepping out of our league, this is too big for us” prove prescient, but Chabrol has delicious, macabre fun in making us wonder just how Betty and Victor are going to survive and maybe even profit from the increasing danger of their gambit.
In a venerable movie tradition, Betty and Victor are such charming crooks that, of course, you want them to get away with the biggest sting of their careers, especially when they discover themselves up against criminals infinitely more ruthless and evil than they are.
A work of superb yet unpretentious film craftsmanship by a past master and an impeccable cast and crew, “The Swindle” itself is no cheat — an unalloyed pleasure, adult and sophisticated.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.
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