Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Coup de Torchon (1981)

by on February 23, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Feb 29 at 6:50, 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


We are excited to see BAM back in action, following its annual winter hibernation. Their two-day celebration “One Hell of a Writer: Jim Thompson” spotlights the pulp novelists’ screenplay work on Kubrick’s bona fide masterpiece Paths of Glory, and Bertrand Tavernier’s deeply black comedy adaptation (also known as Clean Slate).


Carloss James Chamberlin for Senses of Cinema:

Tavernier made this as a deliberate affront to his growing reputation as a noble “humanist” filmmaker. The French colony of Bourkassa, or is it hell on earth? The local sheriff starts preaching salvation through the barrel of his gun. Robert Bresson meets Sam Fuller. Existential despair can be funny.


Mark Asch and Cullen Gallagher in a great piece on adaptations of Thompson;s work, for Moving Image Source:

The specificity of time and place—a lawless wild West, Prohibition’s uninhibited shockwaves, the death of American idealism after World War II—make Thompson a quintessentially 20th century American author, and all the more difficult to update. Perhaps inspired by the endemic racism of 1280’s deep southern milieu, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 adaptation, Coup de torchon, transplants the setting to pre-WWII French West Africa, with Philippe Noiret playing Lucien Cordier, a colonial police chief in the last days of a collapsing empire. In the mistreatment and poverty of the colonized, Tavernier finds an external correlative to Cordier’s internal conflict: colonialism’s raging id and guilty conscience are everywhere in evidence. It’s the Heart of Darkness trap, looking at Africa and seeing the soul of the white man, but it’s an inspired way of dramatizing Corey/Cordier’s shape-shifting moral conundrum.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Purists may object to Tavernier’s treatment of Jim Thompson’s excellent if sordid and sadistic thriller, Pop.1280, but this eccentric, darkly comic look at a series of bizarre murders is stylishly well-crafted, and thoroughly entertaining. Transferring the action from the American Deep South to French West Africa in the late ’30s, Tavernier elicits a characteristically colourful performance from Noiret as the manic but outwardly easy going slob of a cop who initiates a private vendetta against the town’s more obnoxious citizens by resorting to murder. Strange insights into the effects of racism and the complicity of its victims, embellished with black wit and an elegant visual sense.

Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Bertrand Tavernier’s rowdy, broad, unsettling moral tale (1981) of a corrupt minor law-enforcement official in French colonial Africa who, tired of being pushed around by his wife, colleagues, friends, and the local pimps, decides to enforce more law than anybody wants. Like Jacques Becker in Goupi Mains Rouges, Tavernier follows screwball comedy out to its other side as madness: you’re never sure whether what you’re watching is high spirits or insanity, and the characters keep reversing themselves. Working with two veterans of the French “tradition of quality,” set designer Alexandre Trauner and coscenarist Jean Aurenche, Tavernier created one of the freshest French films in years—it has wit, dash, and fiber.


Michael Dare, in his original essay for the Criterion Collection laser-disc (!):

With equal touches of Kafka, Genet, and Beckett, director Bertrand Tavernier’s brilliant adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp paperback Pop. 1280 takes place in an ethical no-mans-land. Jim Thompson novels are all harrowing studies in amorality in which we must identify with someone whom circumstances force to do terrible things – a point of view that found it’s perfect fruition in the dark American film noir. It might seem impossible to make an entertaining a humorous movie that seriously embraces nihilism, where nothing means anything, but in a master like Tavernier’s hands, even ambiguity can be fun entertaining.
Noiret plays Cordier as a bumbling boob, a Gallic Woody Allen with no pride or values. He is an object of ridicule, and at first we laugh at him along with everyone else. Then he gets violent and diabolical, engaging in acts so against his nature that no one suspects a thing. Once he starts on his murder spree, our sympathy works against us. As in Taxi Driver, Coup de Torchon lets you identify with a lunatic, then makes you shrink back in horror as you witness the results of his progressively ingenious rationalizations for murder. There has never been more casual gunplay. Cordier takes lives with a startling lack of drama.

Though the film is thematically similar to film noir, with it’s steadfast examination of the dark side of man, musically and visually it’s the exact opposite. Tavernier’s frequent collaborator, Philippe Sarde, has written an evocative, jazzy, cock-eyed score, and cinematographer Pierre William Glenn has shot a bright and airy landscape, burnt raw by the relentless African sun.According to Tavernier, the cinematography is deliberately unworldly. “I’m more and more attracted to camera movements that are not functional and that have no strategic or explanatory purpose,” he explains. “I want them to be not parallel to the action, but either ahead or behind it. They should always aim to integrate a character with the decor, not just to follow the hero. I like a camera that lingers, explores, discovers. All the French films of the time were composed around the principle of symmetry, with the hero in the center. With the steadicam, I created an image that had no center, that kept shifting. It’s different from a hand-held camera, reportage-style: we don’t give the impression of cinema verite. Instead, it has an imperceptible, disquieting effect. It’s the physical equivalent of earth that isn’t solid.”


Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:

Tavernier’s Coup de torchon is a darkly humorous satire that transplants film noir tropes to colonial Africa, where the local colonial French police officer, Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret), is the laughing stock of his village. He’s a kind, decent man, sympathetic to the black locals. Indeed, he’s one of the few white people in the area willing to defend the humanity and honor of the Africans against his fellow colonial administrators, who generally insist that blacks aren’t even people at all — one military officer compares them to cows. But Lucien’s anti-racist stance is limited to words, because he’s almost completely ineffectual as a cop and as a man. He takes bribes to look the other way while visiting officials make sport of ridiculing African burial rites. His shrewish wife (Stéphane Audran) cuckolds him with her lover Nono (Eddy Mitchell), who she passes off as her half-witted brother. He is routinely mocked, insulted and beaten by his many superiors in the colonial infrastructure. In short, Lucien is the butt of all the town’s jokes, and Noiret plays him like a sad dog who’s been kicked one time too many, and who finally decides it’s time to bite back.
Lucien transforms himself from a good-natured but beaten-down man, trampled by the system he’s a part of, into a vengeful, amoral, scheming sociopath, with no compassion or sympathy for anyone. He murders whoever gets in his way, including the troublesome husband of his nymph-like mistress Rose (Isabelle Huppert). His bloody retribution is a result of, and an expression of, the dehumanizing effects of colonialism and racism on an ordinarily good-hearted man. As such, the message is bleak, and the circular structure of the story bookends the film with mirror images of Lucien at the two extremes of human behavior: the opening and closing shots map his descent from goodness to depravity. But Tavernier brings to this grim story a playful wit and surprisingly light touch. Coup de torchon is a mordantly funny satire, a film about how exploitative, racist systems strip the humanity, not only from their victims, but from their own agents as well.



Dan Yakir talks to Tavernier for Film Comment (Sept/Oct 1984):

Even when I destroy, I like to do it with a certain joy, with excitement – as in Coup de torchon. I find joie de vivre even in horror, which is what I like about Jean Genet. Maybe it’s because I’ve been contaminated by the surrealistic side of Aurenche and Prévert. Aurenche allowed lyricism into his life. He taught me to use everything that happens in life in film: the baroque, the crazy, everything. I love the joyous anarchism of Autant-Lara’s La traversée de Paris. It’s neither noir nor didactic.
What attracted you to Coup de torchon?

I often make a film because of an image or an element that doesn’t even end up in the film. I wanted to make A Week’s Vacation because somebody told me a story about a little girl in a classroom who said, “I wish there would be a war!” But I never included it in the film.
In Coup de torchon, I was attracted to the fact that it has so many typical, predictable ingredients like a sheriff who cleans up a city; but after a while the bizarre takes over and you have no idea what values are at work and even where you are. You end up with a comic mood that gets under your skin – the atmosphere of violence, horror, hypocrisy doesn’t leave you anything to hold on to. But it’s not exactly a desperate vision of the world. Nor is it the opposite. You simply don’t know. That excites me. And I used it within the specific context of the prewar French colonial cinema.
I used the steadicam in an opposite manner to the way Stanley Kubrick did in The Shining: not to eliminate problems, but to accept them, in order to achieve an image that has no center. All the French films of the time were composed around the principle of symmetry, with the hero in the center. With the steadicam, I created an image that had no center, that kept shifting. It’s different from a hand-held camera, reportagestyle; we don’t give the impression of cinéma vérité. Instead, it has an imperceptible, disquieting effect. It’s the physical equivalent of earth that isn’t solid.



Derek Elley for Films & Filming:

Dark currents run through Tavernier’s latest film. When the suppressed violence breaks out, it does so to memorable effect; and all the more so for the off-beat madness which usually keeps it safely in place. Paradoxically, this is also the director’s wittiest film to date: Tavernier laughs both at the audience and with his main character – and at the lunacy of it all. Coup de torchon is no policier, and Tavernier lets on the truth early in the game. As the opening sequence, and Sarde’s fractured music, hint, the film is about a certain kind of madness – a madness in fancy dress – and Tavernier is more interested in cause and effect than its results.
Both Tavernier’s wit and Sarde’s music temper the surface feel of the story. The latter, in the style of Ellington, Jaubert and Bley and capped by a crazy tango, makes all-too-rare appearances; the former is much in evidence. Philippe Noiret walks through the picture with just the right amount of shambling melancholy, whether groping Isabelle Huppert in the street or submitting meekly to the waspish tongue of Stephane Audran. Jazz musician Eddy Mitchell contributes a crazy cameo as a domestic oaf, while newcomer Irene Skobline sets off the oddball atmosphere with a touching portrayal of normality amidst chaos. At every turn – and in the scene of a cinema’s destruction, quite literally – Tavernier undercuts the cliches of Thirties’ French colonial cinema with an almost obscene glee. Sarde joins in, using his love theme for both the mad and the sane, and Pierre William Glenn further shakes the cocktail with bravura sequences on his full-time Steadicam.


Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films:

Bertrand Tavernier, one of my favorite directors, has a particular talent for examining men and their work. Few filmmakers approach the workplace with such a complete sense of how much a man and his occupation fuse into one inseparable entity. His appreciation of this phenomenon helps one understand how a man can drop dead the day after retirement.

Coup de Torchon seems, at first, to be the antithesis of this theme. However, if we look at what its protagonist, Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret, best known to Americans as the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso), says about his work as the sheriff of a small town in French West Africa, we can see that being thwarted in performing his duties may be a major problem for him. This possibility only becomes apparent after the plot thickens.

If the first murders are happenstance, the rest are somewhat plotted. Cordier pretends he’s finally performing his public duty by putting these tortured souls—for isn’t all humanity tortured?—to rest. He starts telling people he’s Jesus Christ. What he is and what will become of him is an open question. I don’t think it is giving anything away to say that the last scene has him aiming his pistol at some African children, then hesitating to shoot. Cordier is a man we both revile and pity, a lunatic louse with some shred of humanity that torments him at all times. A fascinating film, well worth a look.



Kehr again, in When Movies Mattered:

“Black comedy” is a badly abused term these days – it cam mean anything from Mel Brooks’ Nazi jokes to the campy horror of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and generally settles on anything that combines slapstick and dead bodies. But black humor in its more elevated sense, as practiced by Swift, Kafka, Waugh, is very rare in the movies; there is Hawks’s Scarface, Becker’s Goupi mains rouges, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and not much else. Death, violence, and moral corruption aren’t just slapstick props in these films, but agonizingly real presences, and their comedy isn’t a release from horror but a confrontation with it. Laughter can often be a defense, a way of shunting aside disturbing emotions, of reducing horror to triviality. But in these films, humor and horror exist side by side; they play on the very thin line that separates a laugh from a scream, touching the hysteria common to both. To laugh is to give yourself up to an irrational situation. The best black humor makes us feel the horror, and if we laugh instead of shudder, it’s only because the artist has nudged us that way. The slighter and subtler the nudge the better, and in Tavernier’s Coup de torchon, the nudge is so slight that it’s almost imperceptible. Tavernier has placed his film exactly on the dividing line’ it demands a deep complexity of response, with its ambiguity filtered from levels of theme to character to style to audience reaction. It’s a black comedy of the richest kind: a film that teeters on the edge.


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