Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Films I Love #26: Coup de torchon (Bertrand Tavernier, 1981)
Bertrand 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.