“Coup de Torchon”- Clean Slate [MOVIE REVIEW]

Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert. Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal

Rialto Pictures has just released a 4K restoration of Bernard Tavernier’s 1982 masterpiece, “Coup de Torchon” based on Jim Thompson’s novel “Pop. 1280.” I have to confess that I saw the film in its original release and this dark humor, pulp noir feature left me cold. Seeing it now, all I can wonder is how did I not see this classic for what it is? “Coup de Torchon” is one of the most devastatingly sly, raw and brilliant indictments of man’s inhumanity to  man as viewed through a colonial prism. Thompson’s book took place at the turn of the century in Pottsville, Texas, population 1280. Tavernier, writing again with longtime collaborator Jean Aurenche, has cleverly transposed dates and locations. From Texas of the early teens, they have set this story in a backwater West African desert town in 1938, on the cusp of the war with Germany.

Eddy Mitchell, Stéphane Audran, and Philippe Noiret. Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal

The tiny town of Bourkassa, Senegal is presided over by chief of police Lucien Cordier. Cordier, the very definition of indolent, does nothing because, as he has concluded, that is what the town’s French population expects of him. Slovenly in dress and manner, he wanders aimlessly, standing by as the local pimps, Le Péron and Leonelli, ridicule him, as Marcaillou, one of the town’s miscreants (and husband of his lover Rose), beats not only his wife but also native Senegalese in public in front of the townspeople; and, perhaps worst of all, his wife Huguette cuckolds him with the man she claims is her brother, Nono (and if he actually is, then that adds several degrees of ick factor). It’s too hot for Cordier to get worked up; besides, the town isn’t interested in justice; the town is interested in the status quo, and a very racist status quo it is. The French equivalent of the “N” word resides in the mouths of almost every white citizen, and the Africans know better than to go to Cordier for aid. Cordier sees everything and despite his inaction, it’s too hot after all, his sympathies lay with the downtrodden.

But he may well have a conscience; perhaps not a conscience because even he has his limits. Making a surprise visit to his superior, Captain Chavasson, as racist as any dirtwater Mississippi sheriff would have been at the time, Lucien describes his problems with the pimps. Chavasson, listening intently, advises him to give them twice what they give him and then some. What Lucien hears from this conversation is permission to eliminate, in the Biblical sense, his problem and he does. They join recently departed Black locals cast off in the river to join their ancestors, a fitting end for Le Péron and Leonelli who used to take target practice at the river, aiming for the heads of the deceased. They won’t be doing that anymore.

Lucien’s inflated chest reflects his new found self-respect and he sets out to remedy other ills in town after a discussion with the local priest. Describing the hell that Marcaillou inflicts with impunity on those in weaker positions than him, the priest remarks that Lucien should take care of him for the public good. And he does, instantly making Rose a very happy widow. That self-esteem is growing daily. Rose and Huguette notwithstanding, he might actually have a chance with the beautiful young teacher who has just arrived to teach the Senegalese children how to read.

Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert. Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal

In many ways, Tavernier has set up this story as a modern day western in a remote, forbidden outpost. Cordier is the weak-willed sheriff without power and without respect. He’s given up on life. His wife betrays him daily in a most ignominious way; he’s basically paid to look the other way when crimes are committed; and is ridiculed by the basest citizens of the town. There’s no upside in protecting the weak and his girlfriend has no class. Just what he deserves, or maybe that’s just desserts in the desert. Into town rides the virginal teacher, idealistic and the moral compass for this corrupt town. Cordier must clean up the town to make it worthy of this newly arrived princess. It’s not so much his motives that are in question, but rather his means.

Ironically, Cordier has a Christ complex; incongruous for a man without moral standing or background. He’s not nearly as dumb as he looks or as everyone assumes, and it is this slyness that contributes to his awakened need for retribution and misplaced sense of righteousness. If you have to break some eggs to make an omelet, Cordier’s is a candidate for the “Guiness Book of World Records.”

The stakes in Bourkassa were never high. It’s barely on the map and it’s the end of the line for those marginal colonialists who call it home. But it’s Cordier’s fiefdom and Tarvernier has given us quite a cross-section of the racist, indolent, vicious French citizens in this microcosm of society. 

It is the cast that really sets this apart, though. Eddie Mitchell, Nono, was a major rock star in the 60s. “Coup de Torchon” was his first major film and launched an acting career that continues today. His Nono is the very definition of louche without the income to support his behavior. Insinuating himself into the wretched life of Cordier, Mitchell’s Nono has no shame. Wandering the apartment, it’s as if his bathrobe has been superglued to his body. 

A young Isabelle Huppert plays Rose, the merry widow with a sexual appetite that exhausts even the sex-starved Cordier. Already an established star, she shines in her duplicity with eyes that close to slits and an undulating body that speaks as much as her cleverly written and delivered dialogue. The magnificent Stéphane Audran plays Huguette, Cordier’s harridan of a wife. With sponge curlers in her hair and a peignoir that would never be mistaken for a kimono, she slouches everywhere, even in bed where she swats away her husband. She plays off Huppert’s Rose like they were wary siblings, warmly close one moment, spitting venom the next. 

It is the great Philippe Noiret who drives this story as the seemingly hapless Lucien Cordier. Noiret, a personal favorite of mine, who had an international career and won a bushel full of awards, surreptitiously makes you believe his Cordier is one thing while under cover he is anything but. It’s extraordinarily difficult to play the dummy, especially one who slowly transforms before your eyes, making you question what you are seeing happen. He was a touchstone for Tavernier and he used him often.

Tavernier, too young for the New Wave cinema of the 60s, was part of the second wave, also writing for “Cahiers du Cinéma.” He learned from the masters whose films he helped promote. Like his New Wave predecessors, he exploded on the scene with his first movie, “The Clockmaker of Saint Paul,” in 1974. Noiret, an established star, was the lead and helped launch his career. On this and subsequent films, Tavernier collaborated with writer Jean Aurenche. Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn makes you feel every drop of sweat and see every fly alighting on the shaved head of an indigenous child. His portrait of the desert is unforgiving and the light is blinding. Alexandre Trauner was an international star in the field of Production Design having worked with Marcel Carné on his most famous films, including “Children of Paradise,” and won an Oscar for Billy Wilder’s iconic hit “The Apartment.” His rooms are claustrophobic, the exteriors look like they are held together with spit. His creation of the public outhouse area is so effective you can smell it, something that is an important part of the revenge that Cordier sets up against the local “entrepreneur” who refuses to fix them.

Tavernier, combining two very American genres, film noir and the western, borrowed heavily from his New Wave influences, especially Claude Chabrol whose technique is almost mimicked in this film. But this appropriation also led to the establishment of his own style and Tarvernier, over the course of his career, became a grand master himself.

This beautiful restoration is not to be missed. Rialto Films has done it once again.

In French with English subtitles.

Opening January 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown LA.

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