Coup de Torchon

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Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 movie Coup de Torchon is a bizarre adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel Pop. 1280. Bizarre not because Tavernier and his co-writer Jean Aurenche have moved the action from Texas to West Africa. Nothing wrong with that. It’s the way they’ve excised Thompson’s black humour and inserted French farce in its place, draining the story of power as they do so.

It’s 1938 and we’re in Senegal, where the white colonial French lord it over the black locals. They’re a mixed bunch, the whites, most of whom wouldn’t amount to much back home but have a status and lifestyle out here that, Tavernier makes clear, is really rather lovely. They drink, they amble about, they have lovers, whoop di doo.

Law and order is maintained, or rather isn’t, by the entirely sappy local white cop Lucien Cordier (the hangdog Philippe Noiret), who will do anything for an easy life, turning away when he spots a crime, making weak protests about someone’s actions only when he absolutely has to. He’s so sappy, in fact, that his wife’s lover is living under his own roof, posing, sneeringly, as her brother.

There is another side to Cordier, though. Not just his secret affair with the wife (Isabelle Huppert) of the town bully, Marcaillou (Victor Garrivier), but the fact that he’s a killer whose coldly methodical instinct is hidden to an almost fanatical degree behind the exterior of unkempt bonhomie. Cordier is another version of Jim Thompson’s ruthless, smart killer Lou Ford (who you may remember being played so brilliantly by Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me).

Tavernier paints a picture of a ceaselessly racist milieu – the whites take potshots at the dead black bodies floating in the river after dying of the dysentery that’s ravaging the area; dead whites get a proper burial. There is much talk of whether the local black people have souls, or are even human.

Cordier being roughed up by pimps Le Peron and Leonelli
Cordier with pimps Leonelli and Le Peron

So when Cordier sets out on what looks like a one-man mission to clean up the town, done entirely on the quiet, he comes across as something of a force for good, especially as Noiret is playing up the liberal humanism of the man and downplaying the dead-eyed killer. Though it’s there – in one scene, as one of his victims lies dying, Cordier kicks him repeatedly, asking the ironic question as he does so: “what kind of man kicks a man who’s dying?”

This is a great cast – the hugely versatile Noiret (who worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor to Agnès Varda and Ted Kotcheff) is brilliant, but there’s also a youthfully coquettish Huppert, Stéphane Audran as Cordier’s hot-for-sex wife, Irène Skobline as the new teacher in town, whose pure soul brings Cordier up short, Jean-Pierre Marielle as a pimp dressed head to toe in immaculate white and Guy Marchand as the fellow cop Cordier nudges towards taking the rap for his murders.

It’s a superb looking film too, fabulously cinematic, with a grand sweep and a lot of air. Tavernier also makes use of the Steadicam, still relatively unknown in those days, in extended constantly moving single-shot scenes designed to unsettle the viewer with the Steadicam’s “disquieting effect” (as Tavernier put it in an interview). Kubrick did much the same in The Shining, shot the previous year.

As a film about colonialism, Coup de Torchon cannot be faulted. As an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s particular sort of noir, it can. Crime done as farce is a movie staple – think Pulp Fiction – but with the nods, winks and grimaces of that very particular French style of farce it’s a joke that wears thin very quickly, and it also has the effect of puncturing any sense of jeopardy that might be brewing. Will Cordier get caught? Do we care?

Yorgos Lanthimos was slated to direct another adaptation of Pop. 1280 but that idea seems to have fallen by the wayside. A pity, because his detached storytelling style might have got into the corners that Tavernier’s film, for all its wonderfulnesses, could not reach.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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