[Original published in The Weekly (Seattle), July 13, 1983]
It’s 1938 in the French-African village of Bourkassa and Lucien Cordier, the one-man local constabulary, can’t get no respect. The lone inhabitant of the jail, an ancient black trustee who once poisoned his wife, must have been incarcerated long before Lucien’s time, because Lucien never arrests anybody. Let one of the locals start getting rowdy and Lucien, if he can’t run the other way, does his damnedest to look the other way. Small wonder that the principal resident predators, a pair of bored pimps, don’t hesitate to make public sport of him, or that his immediate superior, a half-day’s train journey removed, treats him the same way. Lucien fares little better in his own home: his wife Huguette refuses to sleep with him out of general disgust and also because she’s busy carrying on with a live-in lout named Nono, who may or may not be her brother. All in all, Lucien Cordier is a congenital, if affable, loser.
He’s such a loser that when he finally, grandly announces “a decision,” it’s that “I decided I don’t know what to do.” This decision is imparted to his big-town superior, Marcel, who has his usual fun scrambling Lucien’s already-dim wits and booting his ass. Somewhere in the course of this lazy-afternoon exercise, Marcel carelessly gifts Lucien with An Idea: if you’re kicked, kick back twice as hard. Serenely bearing what he takes as carte blanche for retribution, Lucien climbs back on the train, returns to Bourkassa, and straightaway shoots down the pimps.
This works out fine. Nobody witnesses the nocturnal execution and the river, already well supplied with corpses from the ongoing dysentery epidemic, bears the pimps’ bodies away. It works out finer still when Marcel arrives shortly thereafter, belatedly concerned how the lox-headed Lucien may have interpreted his advice. Given Marcel’s penchant for he-manly braggadocio, Lucien has little trouble establishing him in the public eye as the likeliest suspect, should the missing pimps turn up dead. Slowly Marcel, and the audience, begin to realize Lucien may be shrewder than he looks.
Coup de Torchon, the French nominee for the latest Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, was co-written and directed by Bertrand Tavernier, after a Southern-based novel, POP. 1280, by the enigmatic American writer Jim Thompson (The Getaway). Like such earlier Tavernier films as The Clockmaker and The Judge and the Assassin, it’s a provocative exploration of the perversities of justice, social organization, and the human personality. Unlike them (and Let Joy Reign Supreme, Death Watch, etc.), it’s a film in which the director’s always impressive thematic ambitiousness is matched by the complexity and subtlety of realization necessary to release the full power of those cherished perversities.
The murder of the pimps and the framing of Marcel are only the beginning of a new regime for Bourkassa. Quietly, without publicly tipping his hand, Lucien sets about righting some longstanding neighborhood wrongs. A particularly nasty wife- and Negro-beater meets with a “hunting accident.” The local plutocrat whose company’s public toilet is literally a stench in the nostrils of honest men (and the first thing Lucien sees when he looks off his porch in the morning) suddenly finds himself emphatically in the shit. Even Lucien’s contemptuous wife and brother-in-law are artfully, fatally encouraged to go too far in their brand of outrage, and they pay for it.
Tavernier’s (and, I assume, Thompson’s) story is a good one, but it’s easy to imagine several ways it might have gone wrong in the filming. Another director might have reduced it to a soulless exercise in escalating body count, sort of a Dr. Phibes-crossed-with-Death Wish. Put a self-righteously moralizing spin on the same formula and you’d have a complacent critique of vigilante fascism. Lean on the eve-of-World War II timeframe and the inveterate racism of the French colonials (by which Lucien is notably unafflicted), and you could Stanley Kramer–ize the property into aesthetic rigor mortis.
Nothing of the kind befalls Tavernier’s movie, which, rather than locking into any rigid, prescriptive design, stays bracingly vital by constantly reassessing its assumptions and forcing the viewer to do the same. There’s no temptation to identify with Lucien, and no suggestion that Tavernier endorses his actions; but we can’t stand back comfortably and condemn him, or dismiss him as a mere nutcase. The world of Coup de Torchon is a corrupt place, corrupt to the point of a horribly comic grotesqueness, and at least some of Lucien’s perceptions of it have the electric lucidity one sometimes experiences during fever.
Accordingly, Tavernier plays much of the film for laughs. Not the moronic, amoral laughter of the grindhouse audience strung out on programmatic mayhem, but the laughter of appalled recognition, of a kind of cosmic rage. It’s a ferocious, highly self-aware form of black humor that borrows its energy from a kind of moral brinkmanship — risking the abyss because the edge is the only vantage from which everything that must be seen can be seen. This is a dangerous tactic, one that few filmmakers — notably Luis Buñuel and, occasionally, Alfred Hitchcock — have been equal to attempting, let alone carrying off successfully. With Coup de Torchon, Tavernier joins their company.
A good deal of the film’s singular comedy, and its precarious balance, depends on the characterization of Lucien. We can never be entirely sure how much Lucien realizes the implications of what he is doing, how much he’s in control of his own behavior. Tavernier has hit upon a brilliant device that he deploys with rich and disquieting suggestiveness at key points: a rushing, sometimes smooth, sometimes joltingly handheld camera movement that carries us across the action, as it were. At times this camera movement is more or less connected to Lucien’s own eerily compulsive progress through the known world; at others, it feels both literally and figuratively abstract, an independent Force of malign opportunity whose lethal intersection with the course of events seems to leave Lucien as shocked and disoriented as the viewer.
All Tavernier’s directorial cunning would have gone for naught without Philippe Noiret’s amazing performance as Lucien. Noiret is one of those film actors whose presence is so ingratiating and technique so professionally relaxed that he is thoughtlessly underrated in many quarters. I’ve come to believe over the years that he’s one of the finest screen actors we have, and Lucien Cordier may be his masterpiece. Here is a man who must credibly come across as buffoonish and ironical, naïve and desperately world-weary, preternaturally focused and coming apart, bemused and obsessive, savage social critic and pawn of chaos, cuckold and jester of God. One doesn’t think of this while watching Coup de Torchon because Noiret just makes it true, as naturally and uninsistently as yawning because the sun is hot and the afternoon is long. There is a moment when Lucien is visiting his mistress, the spouse of the aforementioned wife-beater he has just killed. He’s explaining to her why he’s willing to eat the murdered man’s soup, but not out of his favorite bowl. Delighted to be rid of the old bastard and impatient with such ethical distinctions on her lover’s part, she smashes the bowl on the floor. The dead man’s hunting hound comes to investigate. Lucien glances down and absentmindedly remarks, “What a weird dog!”…
Copyright © 1983 by Richard T. Jameson