Coup de torchon (Clean Slate) – Bertrand Tavernier and the dark comic side of French Colonialism. (film review)

Hot on the heels of my watching Dead Man, I saw Coup de Torchon.  Where Jarmusch depicts a savage landscape shaping and creating its previously half dead inhabitants, Bertrand Tavernier gives us a very dark show of law men plonked in French occupied Senegal just before the outbreak of world war two.  These films have absolutely nothing to do with each other (except that they are both very funny) and yet strikingly, each takes as its central core action extreme violence and the use of guns to solve problems.


Coup de torchon is an adaptation of Jim Thompon’s novel Pop.1280 relocated into Senegal out of the novel’s setting Texas. When it was first released in 1982 it was immediately recognized as a scathing indictment of French Colonialism, all the while darkly funny and beautifully written. Tavernier chose to set the film in Senegal, right on location, in the town of St Louis, and then to add to that power punch he washes the film out in light dusty colors.  Right from the get-go this gives the film a disturbingly easy quality of inanition along with a torpidity that is enhanced by the occasional hand-held camera trick moving through the streets. You can almost feel the heat and the flies and humidity looking at the film. While it is not necessarily historically accurate in terms of the day-to-day life of Senegal, the spirit of the colonial situation with all its cantankerous reasoning, bigotry and that seething underlying violence is captured perfectly. Jim Thomspon is credited with inspiring many Tarantino films, so that gives you a good idea of what to expect here, as Tavernier is no less a director and he’s in his element with Coup de Torchon.


At the heart of Coup de Torchon is the transformation of Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) who is a policeman in a small town of only 1280 people, which is just large enough to make him the village idiot. He is cuckolded by his wife, who has moved her lover into the house by telling Cordier that he is her long-lost brother. The town is mostly populated by local blacks but the film only concerns itself with the petty lives of the French whites who do nothing other than recreate the live of privilege led by provincials back in France. Cordier is the cop who has never arrested anyone, too lazy or too passive to react against the ambient cruelty with which the whites treat the local populations, and which the white men also visit upon their women; here racism and sexism are mutually reinforcing, although the film hardly probes why this should be so.  Cordiers mistress Rose (played by a hot-blooded Isabelle Huppert) is regularly beaten in public by her husband and Cordier does nothing about this. The local pimps use the corpses of Africans, consigned by the locals to the river nearby in accordance with their burial customs, as target practice. Cordier shrugs in the face of these injustices and absurdities, apparently resigned to his own incapacity for action. Yet he is neither stupid nor indifferent: at the outset he is the only white who shakes the hands of Africans, refuses to call them “sale nègres,” and has genuine affection for his one black employee, Fête-Nat (so named because he was born on July 14).


For no apparent reason, other than the straw that breaks the camels back, Cordier decides to start kicking back. The trigger is a visit by Cordier to the “big” city to complain to Marcel that the pimps are getting to him. Marcel humiliates Cordier yet again by kicking him in the backside twice, explaining that the way you deal with people who bug you is to give it back to them twice as strong. Continuing the joke at Cordier’s expense, Marcel adds that if it were up to him, he would “rub the pimps out.” The local missionary, the other sympathetic character in the movie, also inadvertently eggs on Cordier. Deal with the local wife-beater first, he advises, “do your duty and get rid of the trash that poisons all of us.” What the missionary fails to realize is that Cordier is no longer interested in using the power of the law to arrest Rose’s husband. However, what the priest doesn’t know is that Cordier had already decided to start getting rid of the trash – only he’s not going to use the law to do it.  (Sections of the previous 2 paragraphs were taken from the wonderful essay by Alice Conklin that you can read in its entirely here)


As Cordier goes on his killing spree several quotes gives rise to his motivation, and its far darker and more sinister than plain revenge. When he is about to kill an innocent black subordinate, the black man complains that he trusted Cordier and that he thought he was different to other white men. Cordier says simple, “we all kill what we love.” and the black man replies, “But you don’t love me.” At this point Cordier’s bleak theology becomes more palpable. “Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal,” he tells the servant. “Know who the joker is? It’s everybody.” A little later when he is accused of setting up a murder, his reply is: “If I put temptation in front of you, it’s not a reason to use it. I just help folks reveal their true character.” At the end of the film, as he is dancing with a woman he admires, a character who embodies goodness in the film, he informs her that he has been dead for such a very long time. It is not revenge that is motivating Cordier, it is cynicism and contempt for the world. Most of all, he has simply ceased to care.


This gives rise to an interesting technique that bookends the film. The opening shot is a long drawn out scene where Cordier watches some young Senegalese boys eating grubs out of the sand. He watches them for a long time, building a fire under a tree as he watches. As night falls, he offers the warmth of the fire to the boys, and slowly backs away as they move forward to indicate he will cause them no danger. At the end of the film, shockingly, he watches a similar group of boys, this time through the site of his gun. The two scenes at either end of the film powerfully represent the change in Cordier’s character throughout the film.


One let down for non-French speakers is the subtitles which don’t adequately capture the spirit and cleverness of all the jokes.  Other than that, this is a wonderful, if chilling film, that will leave you gasping.