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.

7 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"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.

"the opening and closing shots map his descent from goodness to depravity. But Tavernier brings to this grim story a playful wit."

Indeed Ed, and I applaud you for naming this gripping work among your favorites. Similarly, Fred Schipisi's THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH (which I personally regard as the second greatest Australian film of all-time behind Weir's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK) based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, relates the story of the title character, a man of mixed race, who goes on a killing spree down-under in 1900. The film loosely traces Jimmie's life, showing how he encountered discrimination and oppression based solely on his race, and how this exploded into castostrophic violence. The film, and it's source is based on an historical account. (JIMMIE BLACKSMITH is now out on both Region 1 and 2 DVDs finally)

Of course that "playful wit and (surprisingly) light touch" you rightly speak of is nowhere in evidence in the unremittingly bleak Australian film, and that's what really sets COUP DE TORCHON apart.

Wonderfully lyrical and descriptive writing (as always) on an essential film by any barometer of measurement.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Man, I love this film, too. Huge sentemental favorite. I really was influenced by the writing of Jim Thompson when I was a bit younger (this wonderful film is based on his novel, Pop. 1280, and is bar none the best film version of any of his work), so I hunted this film down back in the VHS days and my jaw just dropped. I still watch it about twice a year, now in the great Criterion version. This is the film that turned me on to Philippe Noiret, and I have been a livelong fan ever since. BTW, if you ever want a real Noir hardcore ride, please read the original novel - contrast and compare to the film! --Mykal from Radiation Cinema!

kevin mummery said...

For years I've been telling anyone who'd listen what a great film this is, and finally I have proof that not only has someone else seen it, but liked it (and understood it!) too. This was the first Criterion DVD I got, after having seen the film shortly after it's North American release. I didn't read the Jim Thompson story until years after I'd seen the film...frankly, the film is much better than the story. Another excellent review, Ed!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. I haven't read any Thompson, but if it's anywhere as good as this film I'd love to check it out some day.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Ed: Pop 1280 or The Killer Inside Me. Either one - you can't go wrong. --Mykal from Radition Cinema!

Brian Olewnick said...

Nice job, Ed. Agreed entirely on the film. That closing shot is one of the most chilling and fundamentally horrifying I've ever seen, all the more so given the "light" aspect of some of what precedes. Makes the viewer go back, mentally recalibrate and feel no small amount of guilt.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Brian. Good point about the ending, which really does cast everything else in the film in rather stark relief. There's violence throughout, but it's always played for laughs, encouraging the audience to root for Lucien, and then suddenly there's that unsettling final scene and the laughter turns to profound discomfort.