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The Swindle  
Claude Chabrol
1997 || 104 mins

A young woman, Betty (Isabelle Huppert), and an old man, Victor (Michel Serrault), form an unlikely couple of con artists, who travel around the country scamming unsuspecting victims out of money. Cheating civilians is easy, but Betty is preparing for a bigger score. For a year she has been the mistress of Maurice (Francois Cluzet), a money launderer for the mafia, who is set to transport half a billion Swiss francs to the Caribbean. Unfortunately, secrets are hard to keep, and as the pair become entangled in a web of deceit they discover the hard truth: with higher rewards come higher repercussions.

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Claude Chabrol’s 50th feature is an intriguing comedy thriller about shifting loyalties and the mechanics of deception that keeps us guessing until the final reel and beyond. The opening shot of a spinning roulette wheel sets the tone for a story in which any number of outcomes seem possible. Throughout Chabrol keeps us purposely in the dark, leaving us to wonder, by the time the central narrative is underway, who exactly is scamming who? Is Betty betraying Victor in order to run off with Maurice? Is she manipulating Maurice just like any other of her easy ‘marks’? Is she double-crossing both men? What is Maurice up to? Is he really in love with Betty or using her as a cover? And what about Victor? Is he really just along for the ride or does he have a trick of his own up his sleeve? All roads lead to paradise – in this case the island of Guadeloupe – where the ruthless, opera-loving Monsieur K has a score to settle.

The most fascinating aspect of the film lies in the relationship between Betty and Victor. They are the consummate double act, but their relationship remains ambiguous. Are they simply partners in crime, or lovers, or even relatives? At one point she calls him ‘daddy’ ­– but we never get to the bottom of it. These are con artists after all – the less said, the better. Isabelle Huppert plays the seductive Betty with an air of insouciant charm. Her mask only drops when she discovers the gruesome fate meted out to a former lover. By contrast, Michel Serrault’s Victor has the look of a man only too aware of how quickly a winning streak can run out. He is content to play things safe for small-time gains, and warns Betty against stepping out of their league. In the end, his caution proves well founded, and only his lifetime’s experience of keeping a cool head in a tight situation, saves the duo from a brutal and abrupt end.

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