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A Unique French Film Noir Set in Africa

Jul 28, 2004 (Updated Mar 5, 2005)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A sardonic encounter with the noir film tradition; daring and significant themes; superlative performances

Cons:The moral instability and/or the black humor will be disturbing for some viewers

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended. A well-shot, superbly-acted film with powerful noir characteristics and distinctive thematic issues

Bertrand Tavernier’s intelligent and sardonic film Coup de Torchon (1981) raises profound issues that some may find disheartening or confusing. The skillfully constructed and superbly performed script features select elements from the film noir tradition together with inky black comedy. Take a trip to the dark side – if you dare!

Historical Background: Like several of his contemporary French directors, Bertrand Tavernier began association with film as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. He worked on films as early as 1964, as a publicist and assistant director, but first came to international attention as a director with his debut film The Clockmaker (1973), which garnered several international prizes. That film was also the beginning of a fruitful and extensive collaboration between Tavernier and actor Philippe Noiret, who benefited from several of his best roles in Tavernier films. Among the best films in Tavernier’s oeuvre are Death Watch (1980), Coup de Torchon (1981), a highly acclaimed documentary Mississippi Blues (1983), A Sunday in the Country (1984), Round Midnight (1986), and Life and Nothing But (1990). His works are typically intelligent and witty but stylistically versatile.

Coup de Torchon, also called Clean Slate in America (including the Epinions’ database), was based on a novel by pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson entitled Pop. 1280. Thompson was a somewhat ignored writer for many years but was discovered by critics and the public in the 1980’s. His work is the literary equivalent of film noir, packed with losers, amoral villains, or morally ambiguous types. The language is gritty and the dominant tone one of cynicism and nihilism. Other films that have been adapted from works by Thompson include Getaway (1972), After Dark, My Sweet (1990), and The Grifters (1990). Tavernier moved the setting from the deep American south of the novel to French colonial Africa for his film script. The subtext involving issues of racism works equally well, unfortunately, in either location. Coup de Torchon is film noir in part, but not in entirety. Tavernier himself refers to this film as the first “African Film Noir.” The protagonist of Coup de Torchon is (ultimately) a cold-blooded killer in the tradition of film noir but Tavernier eschews the dark lighting and deep colors typical of Noir films as well as the standard moral culmination.

The Story: Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is police chief in the small town of Bourkassa in the West African French colony of Senegal, population 1280. He is a mild-mannered individual, something of a pushover in fact, ignored or abused by nearly everyone he knows. His wife, Hughuette (Stephane Audran), rebuffs and mocks his sexual entreaties and keeps a live-in lover, Nono (Eddy Mitchell), right under his nose, under the guise of his being her “brother.” Lucien has never arrested anyone and believes that he was selected for the job of police chief because the authorities wanted an individual who would overlook the beatings and other forms of exploitation of the blacks by the French. When a domestic dispute erupts between a Frenchman, Mercaillou (Victor Garrivier), and his young wife Rose (Isabelle Huppert), Lucien takes his sweet time in responding and, sure enough, the beating of the woman has ended by the time he arrives. Lucien takes bribes from the two local pimps, including one named Le Peron (Jean-Pierre Marielle), for which they feel entitled to subject him to insults and public ridicule. The local lead entrepreneur, Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune), has built the company outhouses right outside Cordier’s window and refuses to move them. We learn that Lucien’s mother had died in childbirth and his father had regularly abused him and blamed him for the mother’s death. Cordier has also not been sleeping well. Since we are given Cordier’s perspective on things, our sympathies lie very much with this poor abused man at this stage of the film.

Cordier seeks the counsel of the local military commander, Marcel Chavasson (Guy Marchand), about how to best deal with the lack of respect that he gets from the insolent pimps. The commander provides him with a demonstration, asking Cordier to lean over and kicking him firmly in the butt, driving him forcefully into the waiting room where he is laughed at roundly. Cordier doesn’t understand. Chavasson has him bend over again and this time he and his attaché kick Cordier simultaneously, humiliating him again. Chavasson then explains to Cordier that as long as he takes this kind of abuse without retaliating, he’ll be disrespected and reviled by one and all. It’s the kind of lesson, rightly or wrongly, that almost every young lad gets at one time or another from their father or older brother. You have to stand up to a bully, sooner or later, to earn respect as a male in a world of toughies. Cordier takes this lesson to heart and views it as virtual permission to undertake his subsequent violent course of action. Cordier has decided its time for a clean slate in his life.

Cordier returns to Bourkassa and locates the two pimps, Le Peron and his partner, down by the river. They start in with their usual abusive remarks. To their utter surprise, he pulls his gun on them. At first, they’re still tempted to assume that this docile loser could not possibly pose a threat even with gun drawn. He demands that they sing him a song and they begin to judge from the glint in his eye that this man is indeed now dangerous. They comply, first half-heartedly and then with pathetic earnestness, belting out the required ditty. At the end of the tune, he shoots them both to death in cold blood and tosses them in the river – the same river where these same men had previously taken delight at shooting the corpses of blacks for sport. For viewers, this is a surprising turn. Cordier is now a murderer, but we remain substantially sympathetic to him because his victims were malicious characters who tormented Cordier as well as exploiting the prostitutes of the town.

After word gets around about the disappearance of the pimps, Chavasson shows up, fearing that Cordier may have taken his suggestion to fight back too literally. Cordier reassures him with a dose of his old passivity and simplicity. He then entices Chavasson into hinting around town that he himself was responsible for ridding the town of the two unpopular pimps. Cordier has effectively arranged things so that Chavasson himself will be the prime suspect should the bodies materialize. Chavasson is quite naturally more than content to let the matter drop.

Later, the local priest, as he is mending a termite-damaged crucifix, urges Cordier to do something about another human vermin of the town, Mercaillou. We had earlier seen Mercaillou beat his wife, Rose, an oversexed young woman with whom Cordier enjoys flirting, as well as pounding a black man into unconsciousness with a board over a price dispute. Like the pimps, Mercaillou also treats Cordier with disdain. Cordier locates him in a remote spot, takes hold of Mercaillou’s own gun, lets him know that he will be taking over the services of Mercaillou’s wife, blasts him in the gut with a couple of shots, and then kicks the man as he’s dying. Again, we have mixed feelings. Clearly, Cordier has rid himself of all compunctions about killing, but his latest victim was a violently abusive man. Cordier then informs Rose that she needn’t worry about her husband returning. She is delighted and immediately rewards Cordier with a romp in Mercaillou’s former bed. Rose later asks if Cordier killed her despised husband for her. He replies, quite honestly, “No, I was just getting rid of trash. The trash also happened to be your husband.” Rose and Cordier become lovers, evening out Cordier’s domestic situation, where his wife keeps “brother” Nono.

Other than the priest, the only semblance of decency in the town of Bourkassa is the new school teacher, Anne (Irène Skobline). Cordier is drawn to her purity and innocence like a moth to a lamp. He gradually falls genuinely in love with her. In fact, he is so enamored with her as the isolated beacon of goodness in a foul world that he doesn’t even desire her sexually. He doesn’t want to defile this one remaining bastion of morality. He says to her (in about as convincing a definition of love as I’ve ever come across), “When I’m with you, I’m ill at ease, but I can’t keep away.” Later, in the closing scene of the film, she virtually offers herself to him, but he declines, saying pointedly, “I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I were with you.” Cordier lives in a world where he cannot be both “with morality” and effective at controlling immorality.

Cordier’s assistant, a black man, discovers the body of Mercaillou and delivers it to his “grieving” widow, much to her chagrin. In a fit, she flails at the black man and blurts out that Cordier is the one who killed Mercaillou. Cordier instructs his ill-fated assistant to dig a grave for Mercaillou, kills the assistant, and buries them both there. At this point, Cordier’s killing spree has toppled off the ledge of viewer sympathy since, for the first time, he has killed an innocent man simply to cover his own crimes.

Next, Cordier plans another kind of comeuppance for Vanderbrouck, the exploitive businessman who won’t repair or dismantle the disgusting outhouses outside Cordier’s home. He saws the floor boards near through in Vanderbrouck’s favorite stall so that the white-suited prig falls through when he arrives for his morning relief. Cordier and Rose then toss buckets of water on the feces-encrusted sap, ostensibly to help him out.

Cordier still has his wife and her lover to deal with and here he is particularly ingenious. I’ll leave readers to discover his stratagem on their own, but suffice it to say he manages to rid himself not only of his household problem but the increasingly possessive and demanding Rose – in one clean sweep. Pop. 1275!

There are many entertaining instances of black humor scattered throughout Coup de Torchon. The film’s advertising even bills it as a black comedy, though I think that a bit of a distortion. One national reviewer refers to belly-laughs, but I found the black humor of the amusing variety rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious. One bit of funny business occurs when Le Peron’s brother, a military man, comes round, planning to avenge Le Peron’s murder. First off, he looks exactly like his brother (the two characters were played by the same actor), so the locals initially feel that they’re being haunted by Le Peron’s ghost. After that is resolved, the brother seeks the help of Cordier to identify the killer, not suspecting for a moment that it is Cordier himself. He had already heard from his brother what a harmless and inept buffoon the police chief is. Cordier takes the brother down to the river to the very spot where he had earlier killed the pimps and the brother comments that this could be the very spot that his poor brother was killed. They share the remains of the very bottle that the two pimps had been working on when confronted by Cordier. Cordier comments, “We all share responsibility for the death of your poor brother, I perhaps more than anyone else.” Still, the brother never suspects a thing. Finally, as Cordier sees the brother off at the train station, as the train is pulling away, he offers one last comment, “I saw your brother alive and well the day after his murder.” Later, we see the brother muttering to himself, “No, no, no, no”, as the train rolls along. This is one example from many of the very black humor of this film.

Themes: The primary theme of Coup de Torchon is one with which many Americans will have a great deal of difficulty, first, understanding, and, second, accepting if they do understand it. The theme is articulated a couple of times by Cordier: all of us share responsibility for every crime that is committed. It is natural to balk at that statement because all of us also recognize the importance of asserting that each person is responsible for their own actions: The person who commits a crime is responsible for that crime and no one else. It is the essential paradox about crime that both of those contradictory statements are true. We must, as a society, recognize and reinforce the validity of the second statement because of its value as a deterrent to criminal acts. We must also recognize the validity of the first statement if we are to effectively address the sociological factors that contribute to criminal mentality.

Consider, for example that most child abusers were abused themselves as children. Most child molesters were molested as children. Those are statistical facts, yet we can’t permit prior victimization to be offered as justification for criminal behavior. (It is sometimes a mitigating factor during sentencing, but not during consideration of guilt or innocence.) As a society, however, we should also want to minimize victimization of children not only for the sake of those children but also for the sake of the potential victims of those children when they later become adults. Serial killers and impulse killers are often moody loners who were bullied and scorned as children by schoolmates. The Columbine killers, for example, were embittered toward their classmates. Obviously, we can’t, as a society, allow bullying of a child to serve as an excuse for murders committed either by teenagers or later as adults, but it is also foolish not to engage every practical measure to protect vulnerable children from bullying and ostracism – not only out of compassion for such children but as a preventative measure to reduce criminal behavior. Society must embrace the paradox: criminals must be held responsible for their individual acts but society must accept that every act of abuse and denigration of individuals contributes to the development of criminal mentality. We can’t afford to cling to labels like “liberal” or “law-and-order conservative” with respect to crime. Everyone of us should be both liberal and conservative with respect to crime.

Lucien Cordier, in Coup de Torchon, was a man who observed a highly immoral society all around him. The black people in his country were being systematically exploited by the whites. Cordier himself was abused as a child and continued to be abused by his wife and people of the town as an adult, for no better reason than that he was passive and easily victimized. Kick him in the butt, and he’ll get up smiling. Kick him a second time, and he’ll apologize for not getting the message the first time. Cordier himself was supposed to be the law and order and justice in his town but had been picked specifically because he was someone who would ignore injustice. Cordier realized that in such a lawless and amoral situation, he could do as he pleased and get away with it, especially because it would all be seen as “out of character.” I’m not justifying or rationalizing Cordier’s choices – especially the killing of the innocent black man. His acts were immoral. The society in which he lived was systematically immoral day in and day out and helped to form his criminal mentality. A society that sanctions immorality has no reason to be shocked or self-righteous when that immorality is manifested as criminal behavior by individuals. In this context, by the way, we’re not talking about the arbitrary, victimless, puritanical notions of “immorality” like consensual fornication between adults. We’re talking about the varieties of immorality with real negative consequences on people: murder, assault, rape, exploitation, and the like. If you’re unwilling to take a stand against those kinds of immorality in society, you’re effectively contributing to each criminal act that occurs.

A secondary theme of Coup de Torchon is colonial racism, which was no less potent than the racism of the deep south from post-Civil War right up to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s (which ameliorated racism though certainly not eliminating it). The protagonist, Cordier, for all his other faults, is one of the least racist of the white characters of the film. We see, for example, Cordier, as the film opens, building a fire to calm a group of black children who are disconcerted by a solar eclipse. Later, Cordier disagrees with Chavasson who glibly asserts that Cordier's small town, Bourkassa, may have a population of 1280, but it certainly has far fewer souls, since blacks have no souls. “Maybe you’re right but maybe you’re wrong,” says Cordier. The trigger for Cordier’s murder of Mercaillou was his shame over having allowed Mercaillou to beat a black man unconscious, especially when he is challenged to do something about Mercaillou by the schoolteacher, Anne, and the priest, the only two people with any genuine moral authority in his eyes. Cordier’s murder spree, while morally repugnant (in the favorite words of another Epinions’ writer), has to be seen in the light of the general moral degeneracy of the society in which he exists – from slavery, to beatings, to prostitution, to wives and husbands cheating on one another, to theft, to the insolence of his wife’s boyfriend living in his own home.

Production Values: For Coup de Torchon, Tavernier uses a camera technique called steadicam, which allows for smooth search and pan kinds of movement. This creates a kind of sense of uncertainty of footing which, in turn, contributes to an emotional instability. We feel on an uncertain moral plane even as the principal character’s morality begins to waffle. The story seems to unravel as a series of accidental discoveries rather than staged segments. Although Coup de Torchon is noir-ish in the nature of its lead character as well as its black humor, Tavernier chooses a muted palette of soft pastels instead of the dark and deep color scheme typical of true film noir.

Coup de Torchon was blessed with a truly star-studded cast. Philippe Noiret, who built a career around low-key, hangdog kinds of roles provides a subtle and nuanced performance. His character undergoes more than the usual degree of development over the course of the film and he makes the shift in moral ground of Cordier fully convincing. He also has to manage the timing of the black humor elements and the Columbo-like disparity between Cordier’s surface appearance of dull-witted innocence and his actual inner perceptiveness. The rest of Noiret’s resume includes Topaz (1969), The Clockmaker (1973), Cinema Paradiso (1988), Life and Nothing But (1989), and Il Postino (1994).

Noiret was complemented by three outstanding actresses. The great Isabelle Huppert played the part of Rose to utter perfection. She, too, had a tough transition to undergo over the course of the film, from victim of her husband’s abuse, to sex-hungry lover, to killer, to bitter jilted mistress. Huppert was one of the premier French actresses of all-time, with appearances, in Going Places (1974), The Lacemaker (1977), Every Man for Himself (1980), Heaven’s Gate (1980), Coup de Torchon (1981), Entre Nous (1983), and Story of Women (1988). Cordier’s wife, Hughuette, was played by the incomparable Stéphane Audran, wife of French director Claude Chabrol. She delivered all of the crass bitchiness that her role demanded. Her extensive credits include Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), Bad Girls (1968), La Femme Infidèle (1969), Le Boucher (1969), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and Babette’s Feast (1987). I was also very impressed with Irène Skobline as the innocent, idealistic schoolmarm Anne. Skobline was otherwise best known for her role in Chloe in the Afternoon (1972). Seldom is a film blessed with three such beautiful and talented leading ladies.

Bottom-Line: Coup de Torchon was nominated for Best Foreign film at the Academy Awards in 1981. It is in French and has a running time of 128 minutes. The Criterion DVD edition provides a high quality digital transfer with minimal signs of wear. The extras include an interesting interview with Tavernier as well as the theatrical trailer and an alternate ending. This is a high quality film for those with a tolerance for the noir infatuation with the dark side of human existence. This film is something of a flirtation with the dark side of The Force – in Star Wars terminology. There are significant lessons to be learned for those with a discerning eye and a discomforting encounter with moral ambiguity for all. I strongly recommend this film.

Recommend this product? Yes

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It is 1938 in the French West Africa village of Bourkassa and the one-man police force is tired of being a doormat. In this darkly comic adaptation o...
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