Coup de Torchon

Cordier puts a move on Rose Marcaillou

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.

Coup de Torchon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Philippe Noiret Collection – 10 film box set at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Captain Conan

Captain Conan and Norbert argue

The French writer/director Bertrand Tavernier died earlier this year (2021), like François Truffaut another of that band of movie critics who went on to prove that they could make great films as well as write about them. Captain Conan (Capitaine Conan) might not be the most shining example of Tavernier at his best, but it is a great example of what he was good at – sidestepping genre, effortless (almost invisible) technique, humane performances.

It stars the effortlessly charming Philippe Torreton as the titular captain, a rough and ready officer in charge of a team of guerrilla-style fighters who specialise in quick in-and-out sorties and sabotage. They’re what we’d now call a SWAT team except this is the First World War. Conan is the sort who’s happier with his men than with the top brass, knows which whores have the clap, can source decent food when it’s scarce, is rakish, a ladies’ man, anti-authoritarian, ducks and dives, a man’s man, you get the picture.

His great friend, Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), is something of a contrast – smoother, educated, measured – Tavernier setting these two up as a clash waiting to happen and then pushing them into and away from each other just enough to give this strangely rambling drama enough edge to keep us going.

It looks like a war film but isn’t a war film. It’s a human drama set in a time of war and is about people rather than battles. Tavernier’s goes about disengaging our expectations in a variety of ways, first setting the whole thing in an unusual theatre of conflict. We’re not in the wet trenches of Northern France or Belgium but out in the sunny east, engaged in the fight against the Bulgarians. Second, he ends the war fairly early into the film. Suddenly it’s armistice day and, really, here’s what Tavernier is interested in, the way men who one minute are being asked to be bloodthirsty killers are suddenly being stood down and are expected to become model citizens, which is particularly difficult if, like Conan’s men, you have been recruited because standing down isn’t something that comes easily.

Tavernier’s picture of war is full of unusual but accurate detail, like the comms guys who are running telephone cables across terrain their troops are still fighting to secure, dysentery giving everyone the shits, the dead being dumped unceremoniously in a heap by stretcher bearers anxious to get on with it, the endless provisioning that’s necessary – supply lines, comms, sanitation, the processing of the dead, the unglamorous infrastructure that wins wars and makes societies run. And his picture of the uneasy post-war peace is the same – men carousing in bars, dancing with pretty women, stealing a side of pork and cooking it in their room. In fact girls and food are what these men most want whether it’s war or peace. But at a certain point I started wondering, yes, but is there a story?

A mass is said on the battlefield
In the midst of death, life goes on

There is one. And it concerns a gang of soldiers raiding a music hall to steal the takings and killing a couple of innocent people in the process. This is murder and so there’s going to be a trial. Norbert is going to be on the prosecuting side and Conan on the defence. It all sounds like a showdown of A Few Good Men calibre is brewing. But…but…but… Tavernier hedges it all about with digressions and side plots and then doesn’t quite give us the confrontation we crave. He introduces side characters like the venal general (Claude Rich), the arrogant lieutenant (Bernard Le Coq) and the general’s garrulous relative (Catherine Rich, Claude Rich’s wife, in fact) searching for her deserter son, a bit of humour, and more side plots, eventually deferring gratification to the point where the “story” is no longer that important.

All part of the fog of war, or the fog of the immediate post-war period, to be a bit less snappy. Captain Conan is a soap opera, in effect, and feels like it could just roll on for ever. To conclude any storyline definitively would be to kill the film. Other storylines are always waiting in the wings to do their bit.

It’s a strange war film, and not fit to serve if what you want is some shooting and clear winners and losers. Set on the “wrong” front, not even in wartime for most of its running time, with lead characters whose lead status seems to be often in question. All human life is here.

Captain Conan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021