With more than 40 years of filmmaking under his belt, you'd think film critics and fans could come up with a better term to describe French director Claude Chabrol's movies than "Hitchcockian."
Oh, to be sure, the works of France's master of suspense have more than a few things in common with those of the acknowledged worldwide master of the thriller genre. But that certainly doesn't make Chabrol a Hitchcock wannabe, which that term would seem to imply.That becomes even more obvious after watching his 50th feature, "The Swindle." That's not to say that this blackly comic caper thriller isn't as classy as a Hitchcock film -- quite the opposite, actually. But it's also full of Chabrol's signature trademarks, such as his playful tweaking of European movie conventions.
The film stars one of Chabrol's favorites, "La Ceremonie" star Isabelle Huppert, and Michel Serrault, one of France's most revered character actors. The two play Betty and Victor, small-time con artists eking out a slightly comfortable living by preying on unsuspecting businessmen, whom they rob after Betty gets them drunk.
To the duo's credit, they hide their crimes quite nicely -- usually by taking some, but not all of the victim's cash. They also work well as a team, with Victor being the brains behind the operation and Betty providing the charm.
However, their partnership looks to be in question when Betty hooks up with Maurice (Francois Cluzet), a courier guarding what's presumably a valuable attache case. While Victor is planning a scheme to switch cases with the man, Betty is pondering whether to run off with him.
Where the film goes from there isn't necessarily surprising -- you might expect a progressively nervy and complicated game of double-crosses, and you'd be right -- but it is played out with style and wit, with a pair of winning performances from the leads.
As Betty, Huppert is equal parts beauty and enigma, which makes her character developments that much more convincing. Serrault is even better at being a scoundrel, though he's such a charming rogue that you can understand why people might be taken in by him.
It helps that Chabrol puts such droll lines in their mouths. In fact, the film's quirky sense of humor ensures that things don't get too dark -- even though it appears that things are going to get that way for a while.
"The Swindle" is not rated but would probably receive an R for scattered profanities, a slashing and a brief beating, a brief, disturbing scene of gore and use of vulgar slang terms, as well as an ethnic slur.