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


Isabelle Huppert as Frankie

Having made films with more than a hint of the French about them – character driven, focused on metropolitan angst, loose, semi-improvised acting style, unafraid to let nothing happen – Ira Sachs finally gets almost all of the way there with Frankie, a drama set in Portugal but with plenty of French speakers in his cast.

Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 drama Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (Ceux Qui M’aiment Prendront le Train) is a close analogue, though here the central figure around which everything spins is still alive. She’s played by Isabelle Huppert as Françoise (aka Frankie), a famous actress who has called all her family together in Sintra, Portugal, for some yet-to-be-explained reason, though it isn’t hard to guess what it might be.

Pascal Greggory plays Frankie’s first husband and Sachs uses him more as a lucky charm – he was in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train – than as an important character. As Michel, now a happily out gay man, he’s part of Frankie’s extended and blended family, including her second husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her son Paul (Jérémie Renier), Jimmy’s daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), Sylvia’s husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and their daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua).

Floating around the edges is Frankie’s old friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei) and her on/off boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear) both of whom, we are told more often than seems necessary, are in Europe working on the latest Star Wars movie.

Relationships in various states of decay is Sachs’s abiding concern and they’re what gives this drama what little tension it has… eventually. Though everything constellates around Frankie, at the edges Paul is lovelorn, Sylvia and Ian’s marriage is in tatters, Gary is like a bull at a gate with the unconvinced Ilene, and young Maya is off at the beach, where a lusty local is giving her her first taste of the thing that’s causing most everyone else such grief. Frankie and Jimmy, meanwhile, are blissfully happy. But even there Sachs (and regular co-writer Mauricio Zacharias) does eventually raise a little question mark.

Marisa Tomei and Isabelle Huppert
Ilene and Frankie

Having been a fan of Sachs’s films since I first saw 2005’s Forty Shades of Blue, I wanted Frankie to work but it didn’t, or not often enough. Too many scenes felt awkward, as if improvisation as a guiding principle had just been taken too far, when what was really needed was for someone to shout “cut”, offer some notes to struggling actors and then go again. Quite why all the characters so often needed to shout was a mystery too.

That said, there are some fabulous moments that do just work – Huppert and Gleeson just sitting down at a piano together, saying barely a word, the long-delayed moment when Tomei’s Ilene and Renier’s Paul finally meet, for what the matchmaking Frankie is hoping will be the beginning of a love affair.

These moments come mostly towards the end. While Sachs is simultaneously wrapping up and suggesting that life goes on, the drama suddenly takes wing, almost as if on its own, in a couple of scenes notable for what’s not said rather than what is.

Huppert glides through the whole thing, partly because her character, Frankie, is one of those blithe spirits, partly because Huppert tends to glide, and partly because there really isn’t a whole lot of stuff going on, apart from the BIG THING, which is barely mentioned, and I won’t mention either.

A failure, but an interesting failure. Watch it to see actors you wouldn’t expect to see together – Kinnear and Huppert, for example – and to see sun-drenched Sintra, a town that looks busy and buzzy with tourists, with people enjoying themselves. There isn’t much of that going on with Frankie and her brood.

Frankie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Time of the Wolf

Lucas Biscombe and Isabelle Huppert in Time of the Wolf


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



11 August


Mesoamerican long count calendar, 3114BC

On this day in 3114BC, the world was created. Or it was if you are using the MesoAmerican, or Mayan, long form calendar, which takes 11 August 3114BC as the day the universe sprang into life.

The calendar uses a modified base 20 scheme to tally its days, modified so that the second to last digit rolls over to zero when it reaches 18 (so this second to last digit is in base 18).

The calendar is notable for using a zero to indicate a place with nothing in it (so is the first day, is the 18th day), a very early use of the concept of zero.

The world we live in was due to end on 21 December 2012, the last day of a 5,126 year cycle, according to various millennialists. This obviously never happened.




Time of the Wolf (2003, dir: Michael Haneke)

Roland Emmerich’s 2012 seems the obvious place to start with any film relating to the end of the world. But how about a far less obvious choice, by Michael Haneke, known for his unflinching portraits of voyeuristic violence (Funny Games), moral culpability (Hidden) and physical decay (Amour).

Time of the Wolf is Haneke’s version of a post-apocalyptic world and it is about as pitiless as you can get. It also, unusually for a film of the time (it’s common now) doesn’t tell us there has been any gigantic calamity, merely leaves us to work it out for ourselves. Which we gradually do after processing the data Haneke presents us with: a French-speaking family trying to retreat to a cabin in the woods, we assume for a weekend away. Except when they get there they find the cabin is already occupied.

At this point we might expect a bit of shouting, exchanges ending in “I’m going to call the police”. Instead the squatters hold the family at gunpoint, steal their food and car, and then, most likely accidentally, kill the father.

The mother (Isabelle Huppert) is left with the kids, no supplies and no vehicle, and we’re left with the distinct feeling, as in Funny Games, of bewilderment, that a film about a family on holiday for the weekend now seems to have become a film about a mindless murder of a father.

And so begins part two of Time of the Wolf, as Huppert and her two children wander through a rural landscape that looks pretty much as we’d expect it to look in modern-day France.

Except there seems to be no law and order and neighbours are taking arms against each other. Or so we are told in one ugly scene after another. The woman and her brood eventually find a small colony where people have banded together for mutual assistance. But its leader is a brute and the quid pro quo for his protection is that everyone do unquestioningly what he says.

This, Haneke is suggesting, is what life without civilisation looks like, and it’s a bleak vision. Unusually for someone of his generation – Haneke was born in the 1940s and came of age in the 1960s – there is no time in his philosophy for romantic notions of the noble savage, the perfect human beings we might all be if only “the man” would butt out of our lives. Instead, like Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Haneke is reminding us of what we have, what we have achieved and how easy it would be to lose it all.

There aren’t any jokes, there isn’t any comic relief and at times you wish there might be a Roland Emmerich big bang or soppy moment where someone gets an old CD player to work and they dance to an old tune, or something, anything. No such luck.

And shooting it all in slatey greys and blues, dead greens, in darkness and mist, Haneke and cinematographer Jürgen Jürges seem to be going for the atmosphere of Ragnarök – the apocalypse of Norse legend, according to which a mythical wolf swallows the sun and the moon, causing the twilight of the gods.



Why Watch?


  • A grim apocalyptic drama
  • The always watchable Isabelle Huppert
  • Jürgen Jürges’s almost monochrome cinematography
  • Its powerful, and bizarrely hopeful, message


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Time of the Wolf – Watch it now at Amazon