I can’t say that I “found” Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 movie “Coup de Torchon” (Clean Slate; Oscar-nominatd for best foreign-language film) engaging. It is not a good sign that even after watching it, I can’t remember whether I saw it on its initial release (I think so, and that it is/was not at all a good choice for a date movie; if I did see it, it was on a blind date that my landlord set up with a single mother who loved French films). Among the things it is, it is too long (for me; I also think “Brokeback Mountain,” “Munich,” and “The New World” are too long). The running time is 128 minutes, which is not only too long for a film noir, but too much time spent with Lucien Cordier, this film’s anti-hero.
What else is it? It is a movie based on American hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson’s* Pop. 1280 transferred from the American South of before the Civil Rights Era to Bourkassa, Senegal of 1938. The grubby Texas sheriff could not translate to France (Tavernier recalls in a lengthy 2000 DVD bonus retrospect—in English that is somewhat difficult to understand), but a police chief in a colonial backwater had similar untrammeled (unsupervised) latitude. Corruption goes with the turf, though much more small-scale extortion of off-the-record fines than the kind of running the town of Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil.” It is a movie when a lethargic nobody sets out on a well-covered set of slayings.
Although “Coup de Torchon” does not look like “Touch of Evil,” and Philippe Noiret was not as obese as Orson Welles ca. “Touch of Evil,” like Welles’s sheriff, Noiret’s policeman Lucien Cordier also has erotic relations with women far more attractive than he is—a very uninhibited Isabelle Huppert (or is that redundant)? and a more proper Irène Skobline as a new school-teacher. Although at the outset, it seems that Lucien Cordier has no authority and is held in great contempt by his superiors and by local white lawbreakers, there is never any serious investigation of his crimes (no Charlton Heston figure to the rescue). The “lawman” gets away with murder—six times. (Tavernier expresses puzzlement that the population in the title of the French translation was reduced to 1795, but there is a scene in which the official view that the Africans do not count as human is expressed, and Lucien reduces and/or causes to be reduced the white population by five.)
It is not clear to me whether he takes literally the advice of one of the superiors who literally kicks him around to take out the pimps, or realizes that he can get away with murders and embarks on rounds of “social cleansing.” (wiping the slate clean of the title, though there is also a literal text to be wiped off a blackboard within the film). The new schoolteacher (Irène Skobline) opines that he pretends to be stupid, and he shows considerable savvy in diverting any suspicions from himself. As a police chief who never jails anyone, Lucien is a joke. When he turns to “social cleansing,” he is not at all bumbling.
The first three murders fall short of judicial standards of “justifiable homicide,” but can be rationalized (even the priest seems to endorse his choice of starting points… and I didn’t fail to notice that Lucien signs a confession “Jesus”). But then there is one that is only expedient of someone who is not someone who “deserves to die” by any stretch of the imagination. (Lucien tells the man why he has to die, and persuades me not at all.).Tavernier says that it shocks American audiences more than French ones. Not least in being the calmest of the slayings, it is the most shocking and least defensible. There is some perverse comedy in the other slayings and, as I’ve noted, the ones before this are of bad/evil men, but this one may be realistic but is appalling. I don’t understand how Jean Renoir can have viewed the movie being about “redemption through crime.” Lucien makes the place better for himself (and I definitely see crimes), but I do not see any “redemption.”
Philippe Noiret was playing against type, his lovable basset hound screen persona. His Lucien is lazy and very laissez-faire until he starts shooting people. Noiret manages to leave viewers guessing about whether he let himself go in the tropics or was always lazy, and whether he is dull-witted or hiding a canniness (he’s definitely better at setting up alibis than the jealous husband in Quai de Orfèvres!) and waiting patiently for revenge at all the slights he has received, including those of his wife (Stéphane Audran, the wife of Claude Chabrol) and her live-in sponger lover who claims to be her brother (Eddy Mitchell). If he is meant to be an angel of death, he is probably the homeliest one in screen history! He strikes me as quite a soulless killer (though I’m not sure why killers should be soulful!). His lack of ambition makes him more menacing, I guess.
Isabelle Huppert (who also starred in Tavernier’s “The Lace Maker”)is quite randy. The Rose whom she plays is sweet, is treated badly by her brutish husband (Victor Garrivier), and exploited by Lucien. Complicit as she is in four of the slayings, she is a sympathetic character. Similarly, Irène Skobline, in her only major screen role (she played another supporting role in Eric Rohmer’s “Chloe in the Afternoon”)as Anne, the teacher, becomes an accomplice after the fact, but is relatively sympathetic. As the brother of one of the two disappeared pimps (one of whom he also played), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Sauniere in “The Da Vinci Code”) is excellent (being expertly confused by Lucien) in the sequence that provides “black humor” that is funny (there is much sardonic humor in the movie, including Lucien’s direct statement that going after the real criminals in the colonial milieu is forbidden to him, but I would not classify the movement (or that statement!) as a “comedy”).
Tavernier explains the use of steadicams (tracking being out of the question on location in Senegal), the subdued late afternoon colors, and the literal decentering of images (avoiding usual visual compositions) in the bonus feature. Pierre-William Glenn provided the wilted look he wanted. (Senegal also looks plenty dry in the two (postcolonial) Senegalese movies I’ve seen in the last year, Hyenas and Touki-Bouki). Tavernier also presents an alternative ending (going much farther in wiping the slate clean!) that was shot and explains why he did not use it, in a separate bonus feature (sitting in the same place as in the lengthy interview one). And there’s a theatrical trailer.
Being shot in color—even unsaturated color—disqualified the film from being a noir for me. The setting is too rural (a town of 12800!) and too much of it occurs during daytime to be a prototypical neo-noir, though the amorality of the characters is certainly noirish, Audran is a noir wife, and a policeman who is a serial killer doing “social cleansing” fits in the universe of noir amoralism. Tavernier claims that the movie is “African noir” despite the focus being almost entirely on the French there (and it is officially a French movies, submitted for Oscar consideration by France, had a French director and crew, and French stars… and is in French). The Africans are mostly backdrop (Tavernier explains that he wanted to de-exoticize Africa without getting into why this required having no black African characters with any degree of agency.)
I think that the opening with a total solar eclipse (which Lucien watches frightening some Wolof boys) was a bad idea (quite aside from there not having been any total solar eclipses in Senegal in 1938!). It strikes me as a far too blatant metaphor both for the blotting out of morality and the marginality of Africans in their own land.
I also find the shooting of a man who has done nothing bad (in general or to Lucien in particular) as so reprehensible, so damning of the antihero, that I wanted not to watch the rest of the movie. (In fact, I did not finish watching it until the next day.)
* Screen adaptations of Thompson writing include Stephen Frears’s “The Grifters,” Stanley Kubrick’s early “The Killing.” and Sam Peckinpah’s relatively late (and very graphically violent) “The Getaway.” In Tavernier’s interview, he recalls that Thompson listed his major influences as Miguel Cervantes, Karl Marx, and Richard Wright. I can see some of the naturalistic violence of Wright, but the other two would not have occurred to me…
Characters without much sense of individual definition asserting existence through “actes gratuités”—particularly murder—is a well-established French trope, most notably in André Gide’s Les caves du Vatican (translated as “Lafcadio’s Adventures”) and Albert Camus’s L’étranger (The Stranger). Both of those authors observed the boredom and malfeasance of French colonial officials in Africa (as did Georges Simenon, who wrote of crimes there and many a killer).
Especially given the American distaste for the notion that we are responsible for what we fail to challenge, I was surprised to see that the IMDB cumulative rating for “Coup de Torchon” was #2 among Tavernier movies, with “‘Round Midnight” in eighth place.
©2006, 2019 Stephen O. Murray