Review: Coup de Torchon (1981)

Coup de Torchon (1981)

Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier | 128 minutes | comedy, crime | Actors: Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Stéphane Audran, Eddy Mitchell, Guy Marchand, Irène Skobline, Michel Beaune, Jean Champion, Victor Garrivier, Gérard Hernandez, Abdoulaye Diop, Daniel Langlet, François Perrot, Raymond Hermantier, Mamadou Dioume, Samba Mane

In the 1940s and 1950s, Jim Thompson wrote a series of pulp novels, the most famous of which is ‘The Killer Inside Me’. During his lifetime his work was not always appreciated; the real appreciation came only after his death in 1977. The strength of Thompson’s work lies in the headstrong narrative structure, the surrealism and the unreliable narrator. He created a world populated by losers, psychopaths and opportunists with a nihilistic worldview; ticking time bombs and split personalities that could turn like a leaf on a tree at any moment. These aspects also ensured that Hollywood was also interested in his work. Not only did he write the necessary screenplays himself in the 1950s, directors such as Sam Peckinpah (‘The Getaway’, 1972) and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ (1956) is an adaptation of Thompson’s novel ‘Clean Break’) stories to work. For Kubrick, he also co-wrote the script for ‘Paths of Glory’ from 1957. ‘The Killer Inside Me’ first made its way to the silver screen in 1976, in a version by Burt Kennedy that is not exactly faithful. was on Thompson’s book. The version released by Michael Winterbottom in 2010 lived up to expectations in that regard. Also another crime novel by Thompson, ‘Pop. 1280’, was already filmed, in 1981 by the Frenchman Bertrand Tavernier, as ‘Coup de torchon’. Although the setting for the film moved from southern Texas to colonial West Africa, Tavernier remains surprisingly close to the original in atmosphere and style.

‘Coup de torchon’ is undoubtedly one of the blackest films Tavernier ever made in terms of humor. The film starts relatively lightly, with the brilliantly cast Philippe Noiret as Lucien Cordelier, the only police officer in a Senegalese village in 1938, which is largely populated by white scum that have fled France and are now trying to build a life among Africans. Where a policeman usually has the necessary prestige, the good-natured lobbes Lucien is the laughingstock of the village. Really everyone is kidding him. Even his wife Huguette (Stéphane Audran), who just brought her lover into their house and convinced Lucien that this Nono (Eddy Mitchell) is her brother. Lucien herself likes the young Rose (Isabelle Huppert), but does not intervene when she is beaten up in the street by her new husband. Lucien is humiliated in public every day, by businessmen like Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune) as well as by two sneaky pimps (Jean Pierre Marielle in a double role). it doesn’t seem to bother him at all, or is that just an appearance…? Because when his boss (Guy Marchand) urges him to finally perform, it’s as if something snaps in Lucien. The bar is now really full and he starts a bloody vendetta. The good sucker is gone for good; Lucien sees himself as an angel who has to take revenge on behalf of a higher power for all the harm that has been done to him. The only one who could calm him down is the innocent new village teacher Anne (Irène Skobline), the only one he dares to confide in.

It is difficult to capture the exact moment when Lucien’s switch is turned, although at a certain moment he literally says that he has seen the light. That light apparently causes a drastic turnaround, both in Lucien’s state of mind and in the tone and tenor of the film. It makes you wonder if there has always been a sociopath behind those good-natured faithful dog eyes, or if humiliation after humiliation after humiliation literally exploded the bomb. Because how much humiliation can one person take? Tavernier places a socio-political philosophies as a kind of breeding ground under his story. Of course his film is primarily about revenge, but underneath that layer are religious and metaphysical themes: to what extent is it Lucien’s own free will that he takes revenge on everyone who has been making fun of him all this time? The violence is served by Tavernier with a good dose of irony; as if Lucien still feels like a chat between the blows and the bloodshed; nature of the beast or a cunning diversion? Noiret is fantastic in the role of Lucien. Despite his dastardly attitude in the first half of the film, you empathize with this chatty big bear who seems to want nothing more than a hug or a friendly look. It is all the more disturbing when suddenly a murderous avenging angel appears to be hiding in him, who also knows very well what he is doing. He also literally takes the helm, because Tavernier’s camera focus is much more accurate on Lucien in the second part of the film. The rest of the cast is also doing well. We know Isabelle Huppert as a relatively cold-hearted lady, but here she shows that she has the necessary temperament. She also has a nice chemistry with Noiret.

‘Coup de torchon’ is a pitch-black, chilling film that is surprisingly funny and actually has the only flaw that the world that Bertrand Tavernier has created is so full of unsympathetic characters that it makes your world view a lot more gloomy and cynical. Fine roles by Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert!

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