Coup de Torchon

January 25, 2011

Noiret and Huppert

The waves of heat that shimmer above the African plain in the opening sequence of Coup de Torchon are not just indicators of the visual texture of the film—dusty, unstable, with a goodly amount of strolling hand-held camera—they also serve as a prediction of the clarity of the film’s theme. Which is to say that nothing is very clear at all in Bertrand Tavernier’s latest movie; that’s just as it should be, since Tavernier is offering up provocative questions about some heavyweight ideas—Morality and Justice, for instance—and steadfastly refusing to lay down any answers.

Instead, Coup de Torchon glides in a dreamy ambiguity; if the issues that Tavernier engages are heavyweight—and Tavernier, l’auteur of The Judge and the Assassin and A Week’s Vacation, is rather refreshingly resolute about tackling ideas as well as characters—his manner is nimble. He describes Coup de Torchon as a “Metaphysical Comedy,” and that should take care of anyone who needs a snap summation of this unclassifiable film.

The head cop of the town of Bourkassa, French West Africa (it’s 1938), is not quite the jellyfish he appears to be. Even as he kowtows to the local pimps (in exchange for pocket money) and lazily lets law enforcement slide, Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is starting to carry out little revenges. Nothing more than dumping a shaker of salt into his (supposed) brother-in-law’s coffee, but he is striking back. To the townspeople, he is simply the bumbling wishy-washy government flunky, and they would never suspect him of being capable of sawing a hole in the outdoor latrine as a practical joke, let alone of murder, but he will do both.

At some point, Cordier gets the idea—and we’re never sure just when, or even whether he really believes it—that he is Jesus Christ, or a reasonable facsimile, sent to this Earth to clean things up. So he starts “correcting” the situation by killing people, at which times he shows more fervor than he usually demonstrates (basically, Cordier would prefer to be sleeping or eating all the time).

“The termites keep eating the crosses,” says the town priest, planting a new wooden crucifix in the earth. “Good thing Christ is cast iron,” observes Cordier. Cordier is much less durable than that church’s icon, and it is the termites of the world—bigotry, cruelty, mendacity—that have eaten into him and presumably set off his bizarre behavior. “It’s a dirty job,” sighs Cordier, as the burden of being the son of God weighs down upon him. The weariness—it’s gone past frustration, that’s too active a world—of the battle to keep the insects off oneself is beautifully captured by Tavernier (and his co-writer, Jean Aurenche—they based their movie on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280), nowhere more powerfully than in the final, haunting image.

Much of that power comes from Tavernier’s lead actor—the lead actor in almost all his films—Philippe Noiret, who shuffles, slouches and rolls through the comedic/horrific paces with the agility of a big sea lion in water. Stubble-bearded, pink-shirted, and round-bellied, Noiret gives one of those performances in which an actor seems to do nothing and does everything. (He’s aided by superb work by three special actresses: Stéphane Audrane, Isabelle Huppert, and Irène Skobline.) Noiret and Tavernier don’t let us forget that Cordier is both a personality for examination, and an all-too-recognizable portrait of somebody who lives inside all of us.

First published in The Informer, July 1983

I think this was just about the time I started reading Jim Thompson, and Pop. 1280 was probably the first Thompson book, which would explain why I didn’t say more about it. This film is perhaps Tavernier’s masterpiece, although I can’t be definitive; his movies of the last decade haven’t been shown much in the States. The 1980s were good to him, though. I met Tavernier once when he came to the Seattle International Film Festival, and he happily talked about seeing Fifties starlet Julia Adams in a movie that morning on TV, and his growing interest in the movies of William Wellman–exactly as you hoped he would talk. Detail about the movie I did not know until years later: the pink shirt Philippe Noiret wears in this film  was an homage to the dirty pink shirt Dean Martin wears in Rio Bravo. So there’s another reason to like it.