Chabrol Day Six: Rien ne va plus
Instead he delivered Rien ne va plus, released in America as The Swindle (1997), a wry comedy lodged in a study of con artists, and a decided departure from La Cérémonie’s chilly class struggles and manipulative mind games. But part of Chabrol’s allure has always been his gleeful resolve to derail expectation. For those who (often misguidedly) measure Chabrol to Hitchcock, however, one comparison seemed apt: if La Cérémonie was Chabrol’s Frenzy, then The Swindle was his Family Plot.
Hitchcock feeds us information to move from point A to point B; Chabrol is drawn to the quirks of his characters, their meals and environments, with virtually no interest in Macguffins or climactic payoffs. Although this has unsettled and disappointed people for decades, the director couldn’t care less. (Although 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 father and daughter. Though she occasionally calls him ‘daddy,’ we’re never quite sure who they are or what they mean to each other — which is Chabrol practicing the art of the con on us.
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 pans over them as they sit in an audience before a strange and tranquil performance, a staged butterfly dance, an improvisational piece of choreography that may have crossed the director’s path in nightclubs ages ago, back when patrons still remembered Loïe Fuller.
It isn’t 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 family watching Don Giovanni in La Cérémonie.
Chabrol’s fragments of plot in The Swindle (he wrote and directed) become a veiled critique of human foibles, where love is indefinable and uncertain. Do the antiseptic hotel rooms and snowy northern exteriors reflect the celibacy of Betty and Victor’s relationship? Perhaps. But equally elusive are the genre conventions that the filmmaker could have employed 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 payoff 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 a lack of objectivity (and a slight clumsiness with broad comedy), over a theme that has dogged the director since Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959).
Back then Chabrol was still an active film critic and a stickler for auteur 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 place The Swindle in a small area off to the side of a larger canvas. It’s doubtful that Chabrol ever had a formal game plan for his career, or that his disparate band of pictures would ever combine to form a cohesive oeuvre. However, if we allow the deviation of character and the subversion of genre, 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 any single film, especially one as opaque as The Swindle.
For over thirty years, Chabrol has cast Isabelle Huppert in more than a half dozen pictures, her pasty, freckled indifference working to camouflage some unspoken, burning desire hinted at but rarely exposed. (The actress — who can work with her choice of directors — once admitted she’d work with Chabrol regardless of what the scripts were about.) While the actress is not easily sold as a tart, her Betty is skillfully realized, 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 while 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 gratis (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 numerous jabs at ego.
Whether The Swindle is or isn’t ‘lesser’ Chabrol is irrelevant when placed in the context of his body of work. On the heels of La Cérémonie and preceding the sleepy 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. 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. A brilliant social critic and satirist, Chabrol’s hunger for the truth remains as acute today as ever.