Rien ne va plus
France / Switzerland, 1997
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 15 May 2007
Source New Yorker DVD
Of all the French New Wave directors Claude Chabrol is the one who has built the closest to a mainstream filmmaking career, producing a large body of films – The Swindle, made all of ten years ago, was his fiftieth – that work in the main within the popular tradition of the French psychological crime drama. It’s a tradition that Chabrol has developed into his own recognisable brand with certain recurrent features: a concentration on middle-class settings, a strong sense of locale, a sly wit, and a finely-developed if unobtrusive style. It’s true that on occasions – the early sixties, the mid-seventies – his career has gone a bit off the rails, but since Marin Karmitz started producing most of his films in the mid-eighties, Chabrol has given us a consistent stream of satisfying, pleasurable films which sometimes (e.g. La Cérémonie) run darker and more profound than usual.
The Swindle was Chabrol’s follow-up to La Cérémonie and couldn’t be more different from that intense and caustic portrayal of class resentment, guilt and mutual misunderstanding. It’s pitched as a light comic thriller, although it does veer off into a darker tone in its second half—but even that is balanced by the dry, sometimes black humour that Chabrol brings to the proceedings. Little Chabrolian jokes and gags abound; in fact, in keeping with this being his fiftieth film a whole series of in-joke references to earlier films are planted throughout: the Tigre films, Juste Avant La Nuit, Les Noces Rouges, Betty, and so forth. This was after all the first film in twenty years that Chabrol had taken sole responsibility for the screenplay.
In The Swindle Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault play two very minor-league scam artists, Betty and Victor. In the opening scenes we observe how the two operate on their targets, invariably, we guess, attendees at business conferences (this time, lawnmower salesmen; next time, dentists). Betty forces herself on the attentions of a fellow roulette-player as Victor hovers in the background, she drugs his drink, the two then rob him with a certain degree of subtlety – leaving enough of his roulette winnings behind so as not to be noticed, forging his signature on some cheques – before taking off in their homey camper van.
Chabrol lets everything unfold at a pleasurably gentle pace, giving lots of time and space to his two characters, the sharp and confident Betty, the wily and cautious Victor. In fact, Chabrol plays with us at the beginning, making it unclear who this older man is, watching a younger, attractive woman go off with another man. There’s a running joke on the lack of clarity of identity as Victor and Betty are mistaken for employees in whatever place they’re operating in, a hotel clerk on two separate occasions in Victor’s case, a flight attendant in Betty’s.
Over and above this, Chabrol makes it deliberately unclear as to what Betty and Victor’s relationship is to each other. Husband and wife? Lovers, former or otherwise? Partners in crime, and nothing more? Or even father and daughter? I tend to favour the last one, because I think it explains better the strange kind of disapproval Victor displays towards Betty’s behaviour—and to the sight of the bed she shares with her supposed boyfriend Maurice. It also gives perfect sense to Betty’s final, last-minute reconciliation with Victor at the end of the film, the exasperated acceptance of a father by her daughter, in spite of everything. And there’s also the fact that they repeatedly address one another as “my father” and “my daughter” (more times in the French dialogue than in the English subtitles). Not that this factor is anything more conclusive than anything else in the film. It’s the wit of the film to keep this relationship deliberately unclear and ambiguous, keeping its audience on their toes as much as its characters.
Isabelle Huppert’s own theory is that The Swindle reflects the relationship between a director and his female star, in the way desire and eroticism form part of that relationship even without it becoming a sexual one. There are also within the director-actress relationship issues of control and the will to escape from that control. This is reflected in the way Betty stages an escape from Victor after their successful scam. We soon learn that this is to meet up with Maurice (whom she’s already known for a year), an accountant who’s carrying around five million francs in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.
We’ve seen enough gangster movies to guess the source of the money Maurice is carrying around, the kind of plan Maurice might be concocting, and how that plan can go awry—cue the entry of his gangster boss Monsieur K. Chabrol plays this with a characteristic mix of dark humour and real menace. K is an almost comic figure with his inappropriately smooth courtesies, his apparent concern with the niceties of action (“We’re not cruel for the pleasure of it”), and his obsession with completing his listening to an extract from “Tosca.” His very name is a double in-joke—both to Victor’s earlier jokey reference, in Switzerland, to Kafka; and to one of Chabrol’s commercial exercises of the sixties, Marie-Chantal contre docteur Kha. But at the same time K is a source of real physical threat to Betty and Victor: a throat-nicking, a broken finger, a murder, and a savage beating all ensue.
Just as with the nature of the relationship between Victor and Betty, the motivations and intentions of each of them over this attempted scam with the money Maurice is carrying remain quite unclear. We can’t be sure of the degree of intimacy and affection in Maurice and Betty’s relationship, in particular how much Betty feels – or doesn’t feel – for Maurice. And we can’t be sure who exactly, of Maurice, Betty, and Victor, is planning to scam who. In fact, the details of this part of the plot are treated with a charming carelessness by Chabrol; as always in the film, he’s prepared to slow down the pace of the film to indulge his interest in the characters and neglect the mechanics driving the plot.
Chabrol handles this all with a heightened sense of style and a delightful sense of humour. Chabrol the stylist comes to the fore in scenes where he almost suspends the narrative, the airy beauty of the “farfale” dance performance at the Swiss hotel, for example, or the still space he creates for the cutaway shots from the ski lift. But in a film that plays in some ways as Chabrol’s To Catch A Thief (though one should always be careful not to overplay the Hitchcock connection in a director for whom Fritz Lang is equally if not more important) it’s Chabrol the wry comic who predominates in The Swindle. Plenty of opportunities are given for Chabrol to turn his comic eye on subjects close to his heart, above all the with the characteristic Chabrolian food motif—see the witty contrast between the caviar and the TV game shows that Victor consumes in Betty’s absence, or the amusing distaste with which Victor views the Swiss fondue.
There are also some lovely pieces of social comedy at work in the film—the way (as I’ve already mentioned) that Victor and Betty are mistaken for employees in whatever setting they end up in; the extended play of the scene where Victor deliberately avoids tipping the desk clerk even after he’s tipped the bellhop; Victor’s desperate avoidance of the Italian widow; the loud conversationalist on the airplane who Chabrol deliberately refrains from showing until the very last minute; and the incongruous politeness of Monsieur K’s two thugs, whose physical contrasts – a tall thin black guy, a short fat white one – are likewise played for comic effect. There is of course real menace to the scenes with Monsieur K and his thugs, but in the end it doesn’t run very deep – like the film as a whole. The Swindle isn’t a profound film – you can’t compare it with Les Bonnes Femmes, the great run of films in the late sixties and early seventies, A Story of Women, or La Cérémonie—but in it Chabrol has given us, as his fiftieth film, a finely balanced and delightful jeu d’esprit.