Ohio State University
Bertrand Tavernier’s 1982 film Coup de Torchon was hailed at its release as both a mordantly funny film noir and a stinging indictment of French colonialism. The film is an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1964 pulp crime novel Pop. 1280 set in the deep South, transposed to a small French outpost in 1938 Senegal. As Tavernier explained in an interview in 2000, included in the 2001 Criterion collection’s re-issue of the film, he had already tried and failed more than once in the 1970s to relocate Thompson’s story to somewhere in France. For example, he thought that perhaps he could find in a French mining town, with its mixture of Polish, Italian and North Africans workers, the racial, class, and social tensions that are essential to Thompson’s novel – and thus to any faithful film adaptation. It didn’t work, in part because metropolitan France was too small, and too well policed, for bodies to just disappear as they had in Thompson’s story. Only when he reread Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit with its bleak description of colonial racism, Tavernier claims, did he realize that West Africa on the eve of World War II was the “French” locale for which he had been searching.
Is then Coup de Torchon the kind of movie one might want to use in a course on France and its empire? Although I have never used it myself, having only “rediscovered” Tavernier’s work when asked to review it for Classroom Classics, my answer is a qualified yes. The movie is not a particularly accurate portrayal of day-to-day life in a French colony in sub-Saharan Africa, but it gets the feel of the colonial situation in all its perverse logic, bigotry, and underlying violence just about right. Thanks to Tavernier’s decision to shoot on location in and around St. Louis (Senegal) and use pale colors only, the film has a sun-baked, lethargic, quality to it that is unsettling from the outset. Coup de Torchon is often as hilarious as it is disturbing, with no pat resolution to the fundamental problem of how to maintain humanity in a world corrupted by the unequal power relations sanctioned by racism. Set on the eve of World War II, there is a sense of impending doom about the role racism has played in modern European history more generally. Tavernier’s masterpiece will not be to everyone’s taste; but based as it is on the work of an American novelist who is today seen as an inspiration for Tarantino’s work, this is a French movie that will appeal to many history undergraduates, even if the subtitles do not quite do justice to the movie’s fast-paced dialogue and many jokes.
Coup de Torchon tells the story of the only French police officer in a small town of 1280, Lucien Cordier, who is the laughing stock of the community. Although most of this community is African, the film is concerned only with the petty bourgeois whites who live there, most with no purpose other than to eek out a life of relative privilege in a town that mimics and distorts the boredom of provincial life in France. In the movie’s opening scenes, Cordier – magnificently interpreted by Philippe Noiret– plays dumb, the butt of everyone’s jokes. He 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. 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. Huguette, Cordier’s wife, keeps her lover Nono “disguised” as her brother in their apartment, cuckolding her husband in plain sight; Cordier’s mistress, Rose – played as a vulgar nymphomaniac by a feisty young Isabelle Huppert– is regularly beaten by her husband Marcaillou; Cordier’s superior Marcel compares African women to cows, and denies that Africans have souls because they aren’t people. If they were people, he explains to Cordier, we would call them “gens” but we call them “nègres” instead.
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). The movie opens with a striking shot of an approaching eclipse, with a group of Senegalese huddled in the sand, shivering. A short distance away, Cordier builds them a fire to warm themselves. When he meets the pretty new schoolteacher posted to the village, one of two sympathetic characters in the movie, he quickly quips that teaching is a great vocation: at least the African children will be able to read the names of their fathers on French war monuments.
The heart of the film is Cordier’s transformation – although not one with any clear moral, either positive or negative; after thirty minutes of biting satire and depressing inaction, our hero suddenly has had enough and starts taking out his erstwhile tormentors. 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. Rather he has already started to take divine justice in his own hand with the barrel of a gun. The night before, he had gone out to the pimps’ hang-out, encouraged them to think he would spare them if they sang a song, then shot them in cold blood. It is a terrifying scene, because the audience does not see it coming, and because Cordier’s “holy” conversion to action is not accompanied by any personality change.
Soon he rights all the wrongs in his life. He shoots Rose’s husband, Marcaillou, point blank, then kicks him repeatedly after he is dead. In one of the funniest scenes, he arranges for the businessman who has refused to move his latrines from the center of town to fall through the floor and emerge with his white suit covered in excrement. More shockingly, he next kills an innocent African employee, Vendredi, who knows Cordier killed Marcaillou. Vendredi tells Cordier that he trusted him, that he is different from other white men; and Cordier replies with a secret: “we all kill what we love.” Vendredi replies back without missing a beat, “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 Vendredi. “Know who the joker is? It’s everybody.” In a subsequent scene he sets up things so that Rose kills Hugette and Nono, and when Rose asks him why, if he was just outside, he didn’t stop her, he replies, calmly, matter-of-factly, “If I put temptation in front of you, it’s not a reason to use it. I just help folks reveal their true character.” Cordier has nothing but contempt for this world, in which even the innocent have to be sacrificed. In the last words he speaks in the movie, while dancing with the schoolteacher, he says that he has been dead for such a long time. The closing shot of the movie returns to the opening scene, when the eclipse is ending. Cordier has an African child in the sight of his revolver, when several other children appear. He suddenly sags, perhaps finally disgusted with the shell of a man that he has become.
The question of how this movie so successfully indicts colonialism and racism –and the complicity of the Catholic Church and the Republic in both– will easily engage students, because there is no clear explanation for anything that happens and yet the corrupting power of racial privilege is everywhere. At the same time, the movie is full of references to particular aspects of colonial rule that students with some familiarity with French culture and history can tease out. Tavernier deliberately avoided putting Cordier in a police uniform, to make him stand in for something more grandiose than a cop suffering from le cafard, i.e. too much colonial sun. Yet despite this anachronism, Coup de Torchon captures the light, the local countryside, and certain rituals of colonial life – including the frequent burying of both white and black dead from disease –perfectly. Except for Vendredi and Fête-Nat, Africans hover in the background, which is surely how most whites saw them (or rather failed to see them). All the historical agents of colonialism are there: the missionary/priest cooperating with the administration, the civilizing doctor and school teacher, the exploiting merchant, the tirailleurs sénégalais, and the French military – but also the railroad, the automobile and the bicycle. One of the movie’s sequences involves the showing of silent movie in town to an African audience, with a Senegalese reading and shouting out loud the sub-titles for the illiterate spectators. It is details like this one, as well as the moral turpitude that eats away at the souls of people who claim superiority on the basis of their different skin color –rendered with trenchant wit– which make Coup de Torchon a movie worth trying out in the classroom.
Bertrand Tavernier, director, Coup de Torchon (1981) Color, 128 min, France, Les Films de la Tour, Films A2, Little Bear
- Tavernier obviously had no knowledge of the events of 17 October 1961, when the Paris police killed perhaps as many as 200 North Africans peacefully protesting the Algerian war, and made their bodies vanish. Two documentaries were released in France in 2011 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of this tragedy: Jacques Panijel’s 1962 Octobre à Paris and Yasmina Adi’s new film, Ici on noie les Algériens.