Coup de torchon [DVD]
Screenplay : Jean Aurenche and Bertrand Tavernier (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1981
Stars : Philippe Noiret (Lucien Cordier), Isabelle Huppert (Rose), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Le Peron and his brother), Stéphane Audran (Huguette Cordier), Eddy Mitchell (Nono), Guy Marchand (Marcel Chavasson), Irène Skobline (Anne), Michel Beaune (Vanderbrouck)
Director Bertrand Tavernier has described his Coup de torchon (Clean Slate) as a film about redemption through crime. Based on the 1964 pulp paperback Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson, whose novels also provided source material for Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972) and Stephen Frears' The Grifters (1990), Coup de torchon is a study in amorality disguised as a sometimes shocking black comedy.
Tarvenier and co-screenwriter Jean Aurenche change the setting from Thompson's American South in 1910 to colonized French West Africa circa 1938. Much like the American South in the early part of the 20th century, the African setting is charged with casual, institutionalized racism and a sharp division of economic prosperity. Similarly (and crucially), this setting also offers a kind of mundane isolation that forms the perfect backdrop for the narrative. It is hard to imagine the story taking place in a heavily populated area (hence Thompson's emphasis on population in the title of his book).
Philippe Noiret stars as Lucien Cordier, the chief of police in the small West African village of Bourkassa. Nothing much happens in Bourkassa, and Lucien is an empty figurehead. Even when there is crime (spousal abuse, prostitution, etc.), Lucien does nothing. He has never made an arrest, and the local politicians complain about the pointlessness of an empty prison. Lucien is a meek creature--a weak man whose position of authority is a joke. Two pimps who pay him off every weak also openly humiliate him in public, tripping him in the street and shoving him into the river. Lucien takes this abuse with good humor and timidity, even though he is the constant butt of the joke.
Lucien's life is not much different at home. His wife, Huguette (Stéphane Audran), openly cheats on him with Nono (Eddy Mitchell), a man who lives in their house because Huguette claims he is her brother (everyone in town notes that they look nothing alike). Huguette chastises Lucien for being weak, and not only refuses his sexual advances, but mocks them. Lucien finds solace in the arms of Rose (Isabelle Huppert), a battered wife, but even she doesn't seem to have much respect for him.
All of this changes when Lucien realizes that he can exact revenge on those who have tormented him and get away with it because he is the chief of police. In a deliberately shocking moment, Lucien confronts the two pimps and, after humiliating them by making them sing for him, shoots them down in cold blood. Of course, Lucien is the last person everyone suspects of the double-murder because his public persona is one of weakness and docility. He can't even defend himself in public when picked on by criminals--why would anyone think he could be capable of murder?
As the film progresses, Lucien slips deeper and deeper into his own amorality. Killing for him is a meaningless act, and he does it without conviction or passion. He murders Rose's abusive husband, and when Rose says she feels honored because she thinks Lucien did it out of love, Lucien simply replies, "No, I was just getting rid of trash. The trash also happened to be your husband."
Coup de torchon is a deliberately ambiguous film--Tavernier leaves Lucien's character open for interpretation by refusing any easy explanations for his seemingly paradoxical behavior. How could a man who is so weak be suddenly capable of such cold-blooded violence? Tavernier purposefully plays up Lucien's simplicity in the early parts of the film, making him seem quite stupid. Casting Philippe Noirert was a stroke of genius, as he was primarily known in France for playing gentle characters in comedies. Noiret's long face and heavy eyes suggest comfortable slowness, not sharp cunning. Yet, Lucien's violent actions are strategically premeditated and carefully planned; he is all to aware of how people perceive him, and he uses that to his advantage. His is able to unleash violence at will and then hide behind his public façade. His hidden intelligence is his strongest asset.
In some ways, this narrative ploy is an unbelievable sleight of hand, but within the context of the film itself, it works. You begin to believe that Lucien would be capable of such actions, and the isolated, technologically undeveloped world of colonial Africa is just the place where he would be able to pull it off. Tavernier constantly suggests the isolated nature of Bourkassa by having characters discuss the impending war between France and Germany. Steady talk about the threat of war outside emphasizes all the more how separated the colonies are from the motherland. When war is finally declared near the end of the film, it is of little consequence to Lucien. If anything, it will aid him in covering up his crimes because it is one more diversion.
Tavernier and cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn give Coup de torchon a unique visual style by making extensive use of the Steadicam, then a relatively new technological development. Tavernier has said that his use of the Steadicam was designed to give the film a sense of unease and imbalance, to visually represent the off-kilter nature of a world in which good and evil have become as banal as the surrounding desert.
Shot entirely on location in Senegal, the film's dry, desolate setting is purposefully anti-exotic. Like most film noir, Coup de torchon takes place in a dull, everyday world, and although the moments of violence and their aftermath are shocking, they eventually take on the same dull texture; just another piece of life. But, unlike the imposed moralistic endings that characterized most American film noir of the 1940s, Tavernier offers no neat conclusion. Rather, the ending of Coup de torchon is just as enigmatic as the rest of the film, left open to the audience's interpretation.
|Coup de torchon: Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Video interview with Bertrand Tavernier|
Alternate ending with commentary by Tavernier
U.S. theatrical trailer
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Bertrand Tavernier and cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn purposefully gave Coup de torchon a subdued visual style that was intended to run counterpoint to the sharp, chiaroscuro black-and-white or highly saturated color of most film noir. Thus, the image on this DVD is purposefully restrained, with an abundance of low-key colors like tan, brown, and pastel pinks and blues. However, there is no hint that the image is in any way faded. The new, high-definition anamorphic transfer (1.66:1 aspect ratio) taken from the 35-mm interpositive and approved by Tavernier, is gorgeous, with sharp detail and a clean look. The opening credits sequence does have a great deal of speckling, but that is the only scene that betrays any damage. And, while the majority of the scenes that take place at night are fairly grainy, it is not to the point of distraction (there is also some fine grain evident in the brighter scenes, but nothing unexpected).|
|The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack, which was mastered from the 35-mm magnetic tracks, sounds good overall. Although limited in range, the soundtrack is more than adequate, and Phillippe Sarde's jazzy score, which purposefully runs counterpoint to the film's expectations, is well-rendered.|
| While this disc does not include a running audio commentary, it does have a video interview with Bernard Tavernier that runs almost an hour in length. Divided into five chapters (adapting the novel, film noir, the use of color, the meaning of violence in the film, and a discussion of the main actors), Tavernier's interview, which was recorded in Paris in the fall of 2000, is an excellent in-depth discussion of the film's major themes and stylistic design. Tavernier is thoughtful and well-spoken (he speaks excellent English, albeit with a heavy accent), and it is obvious that he is particularly fond of this film. |
Also included is a brief excerpt from an alternate ending that was filmed, but never used. Suffice it to say, this ending is positively bizarre (it involves dancing gorillas), and it is probably best that it was left on the cutting room floor. Because it would have involved expensive special effects, the ending was never fully completed, and Tavernier explains why he initially wanted to use it and what it was intended to mean (I think it would have been distracting because it is so visually ludicrous, although the metaphorical implications are certainly in keeping with the film's dark view of humanity).
Finally, the disc included the U.S. theatrical trailer. All the supplements, including the video interview, are presented in anamorphic widescreen, which is a nice bonus for those with widescreen TVs.
©2001 James Kendrick