French New Wave director Claude Chabrol’s latter career is rarely admired and often seen as his weaker period, yet with Rien Ne Va Plus (The Swindle, 1997) all the tell-tell signs of what made the late director great, are present. As an auteur he was always indebted to Hitchcock (his first feature, 1957’s Le Beau Serge, was inspired by Hitch’s film1943’s Shadow of a Doubt) and in this crime-thriller that heritage is present in both the themes and style.
Opening in a casino, the beautiful femme fatale Betty (Huppert) is chatting up an unsuspecting salesman at a game of roulette. After spiking his drink, Betty’s suave partner in crime Victor (Surret) swipes the man’s cash when he passes out in his hotel room. This is the game the two small-time crooks play; they are low-level heisters whose exact relationship remains ever elusive. Continual bafflement is in store for the viewer, never knowing whether this pair of crooks are lovers, colleagues or even father and daughter.
The plot continues as we meet Maurice (Francois Cluzet, star of the recent box office sensation Untouchable ), a successful treasurer of a multinational corporation who is transporting five million francs out of the country to Switzerland. Tired of the small jobs, Betty concocts a plan to steal the money. The question is: who is exactly is swindling whom? When he wrote Rien Ne Va Plus, Chabrol had only two actors in mind – Isabelle Huppert and Michel Surret – and the pairing of these two actors was certainly a cunning move, with both offering a dynamic screen presence.
As fine as the performances are, the allure of this thriller is to be found in the joke that Chabrol is teasing his audience with. A misquote from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) seems appropriate – a magic trick is composed of three elements, the pledge, the turn and the prestige. Chabrol’s ultimate cinema trick is that he never gives us the third. Gently mocking his audience, and never completely letting us know what is going on, we still love him for it because he supplies a brilliantly structured, excellently performed comic caper, loaded with subtle charm.
Some may scoff at the mainstream nature of this film, indebted in part to crime-capers such as The Sting (1973) and the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960), but this is also part of the joke. Chabrol’s ultimate talent lay in his passion and fascination with the language and tropes of cinema, and here he plays with the genre, displaying great affection for it all the while. Whilst no classic, there is much pleasure to be found in this well made semi-comic thriller, which makes for a fine introduction to his latter period before his death in 2010.
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