Coup de Torchon (“Clean Slate”) 1981- Bertrand Tavernier
Tavernier’s slithering pastel-hued adaptation of Jim Thompson’s tale of depravity Pop. 1280, relocates the action to 1930’s colonial French Senegal. In the dramatic first sequence, set to Sarde’s menacing percussive score, five jet-black African boys are digging around for sustenance. In the foreground Cordier’s hand appears against the bark of a tree like the claw of some swamp monster before he moves into the frame, crouching down to observe the emaciated quintet squatting in the white sand. Only at the end of the film is the real motive for his lurking revealed. The score grows increasingly contrapuntal and dissonant as an obscuring, dingey film appears on the white dot of sun disappearing behind the earth’s shadow. Cordier lights a fire in the half-dark, beckoning to the boys to gather round in a gesture that feels like the reparation of a guilty conscience. The sequence is brilliant bit of mood-establishment that casts it’s shadow over the entire film, prefiguring the duality of Cordier’s character as affable slug and helpless menace.
Tavernier's Africa is a place of sprawling, culturally ambiguous spaces. The choice of steady-cam is of a piece with the use of faded colors, imparting a sense of moral twilight in which characters eat, drink, sleep, have sex, fight, and knock one another off. It'’s restless, roving glide de-centers and opens up the action; robbing it of gravity and inducing something like spiritual vertigo. Visually plain and de-saturated, bleaching mid-day light and clouds of dust frequently obscure the action. Coup de Torchon is an ugly experience of collectively ugly characters that seems to dare us to take pleasure in it.
A scene with his snippy wife and her incestuous kid brother Nono, in which Cordier vindictively pours salt into his coffee, shows him to be a naughty but harmless mischief-making cuckold who knows more than he lets on. In due course we learn just what he is capable of as a manipulator of people’s minds. For all his apparent dim-wittedness, Cordier is remarkably wily, if not clairvoyant. A veritable seer in darkness who dispatches the unwitting with understated yet lethal eliminationist zeal.
Cordier knocks-off Rose’s husband Mercaillou, kicking his dying corpse-to-be while assuring him he is the more hurt by it. At the funeral Huppert, asked by the priest if she has forgotten the words of Our Father (viz. to forgive one’s trespassers) replies glibly, that she remembers them as “lies one tells children... One can only forgive those one loves, and even then not completely.” It is a declaration as accurate as it is nihilistic. Surely she believes in God, the priest inquires. “I believe, but not truly,” she replies with a shrug, an arid breeze fluttering through her veil. The film is littered with examples of such insolent irreverence, tossed off with the reptilian insouciance that would become Hupert's trademark.
Stephane Aundran is almost unrecognizable as the slatternly Hugette, who asks if the pigeon hanging over the altar is made of gold. “That pigeon is the Holy Spirit,” the priest replies with consternation. “I’ll say no more, I don’t want to encourage theft.” Unfazed, Hugette presses: “What’s it worth? Approximately...”
At times the actors deliver their lines with that mixture of nonchalance and insouciance one expects in comedy. Noiret’s Cordier, even when disseminating pearls of wisdom, is a bumbler, while Isabelle Huppert, here in the first of many turns as moral idiot, quips flippantly as the frontier wife for whom nothing is sacred, eliciting smirks of incredulity. We are hindered from an enjoyable complicity by Rose’s vacuous sang-froid and calculating pettiness. Guy Marchand is comical by his mere physical presence, given his natural endowments. Stephane Audran, looking emaciated and creased since her days of glory and not known for her comedic talents, delivers her lines with mock-seriousness. Over all it's a darkly humorous work punctuated by our gasps of horror.
With the exception of a school-mistress who comes to embody the witness from outside with a moral compass by default, albeit impotent to intervene on behalf of justice, sundry characters display an all-too-human selfishness, greed, venality and, in the case of Noiret’s Cordier, a growing lust for ‘cleaning up the trash,’ as he calls his murders of spite and revenge. From his perspective he is only doing what others--lacking the “courage” to do it themselves--expect of him. To the victims themselves it is a kind of "favor" in his eyes. Cordier is as an executioner out of altruism.
Selfish, murderous, and blasphemous--Cordier represents the dregs of humanity. Yet Tavernier presents him as an amiable slouch meandering through town and countryside from one set table and bed to the next while offering advice and bits of wisdom as if completely disconnected from his crimes. Tavernier seems to want us to conclude that because in Cordier's own conscience he is doing his victims and the community the favor of ‘getting rid of trash’ there is some validity to that perspective. We are allowed to entertain the revolting notion that he is, in some sense, innocent. In the sense, perhaps, entertained by Goethe when he wrote: "He who acts is always without conscience."
Such a means-end perspective exonerates him as effectively as killing out of religious conviction has done down through the centuries. Not only does his conscience not bother him, he feels morally justified in eliminating the inferior in the name of safeguarding purity.
Cordier is vile by word as well as deed, and the screen-play of Jean Aurenche and Tavernier, in addition to its comedic inflexion, is eloquently hyperbolic and cynical. As he prepares to shoot Paulo, a young Senegalese who drops off Mercaillou’s corps in the dead of night, Cordier reproaches him for lying about having believed his every word up to that moment: “Coming from a good Catholic like you it worries me.” Lying, after all, is a sin. They are sitting on a log some ten feet apart. Paulo, resigned to his fate, wants to negotiate. Murder, he replies, is an even worse sin. “Let me tell you a secret now,” Cordier muses, having loaded his shot-gun, hands folded in his lap, “and let it be as a consolation to you. We all kill what we love.” “But you don’t love me, Mr. Cordier,” Paulo insists, making as if to retreat. Cordier dissuades him, as it would only fatigue him, offering by way of explanation for his impending murder: “Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal. Know who the joker is? It's everybody. All the bastards who look away when you’re in shit, who wallow in their cash, praying through their assholes that nothing happens. If it’s true they were made in God’s image, I wouldn’t like to get Him in a dark alley. You kissed too much white ass. And now your getting fucked, and you asked for it. So now this is what I do with friends like you.”
Attempting to console Rose who fears detection for her murder of Hugette and Nono, Cordier observes: “thinking of...starving kids, girls sold as slaves for a mirror, women whose sex is sewn up and you start thinking God created murder out of pure kindness.” It is an resumé of his perverse Weltanschauung. Interestingly Tavernier instructed Phillipe Noiret, known for his warmth and humor, to play each scene as if it were a separate movie. Tavernier did not want him to know when he was being manipulative and when he was being sincere. Disconnected from the unity and accountability of the narrative each person embodies as moral being, the murderer is innocent. Tavernier's directive for the sake of ambiguity works like a charm.
The one over-arching vice of all the characters is a blithe lack of awareness; each exists from one moment to the next without constraints, pursuing pleasure and power in a Hobbesian state of nature. Yet at least one of them--Cordier--is also a philosopher.
The lack of momentum and direction is an impression Tavernier intended to create, not a failure of execution. The stagnant quality is augmented by the steady-cam’s hover, the washed-out colors, and the anomie of its characters. To ‘like’ or enjoy this film at the level of entertainment, that is to say, of transport, would be indecent. Only the morally depraved could ‘enjoy’ Coup de Torchon. That we are repelled by it is reassuring. Perhaps precisely because we are made co-conspirators in Cordier’s nonchalant and cowardly point-blank shootings are we so outraged by them. They are the more shocking for being executed with reptilian detachment; staged not as crimes of passion, but as a kind of pest-control. Or killing as sport. Cordier has two pimps who pushed him into the dingey brown river sing a song for him before blowing them away.
An informed second-viewing with the author’s intentions and decisions in mind; the process of adaptation, style of mis-en-scène, cinematographic technique and scoring--a fusion-Jazz score by Phillipe Sarde--made explicit, enables the artistic enjoyment proper of the film as work. At that level the moral dimension is irrelevant.
The formal level, where content interacts with the formal elements and craftsmanship, transcends considerations of entertainment and morality. In appreciating the inter-change of the narrative and its mis-en-scène, we inhabit a realm beyond good and evil, except in the sense that, as Rousseau observed, there is in all imitation a moral element. To chide Tavernier for his immoral production after his intentions have all has been understood, is naive: we have already forgiven him in and through the higher pleasure of the aesthetic.
To reclaim a sense of moral-outrage at this stage of the game would necessitate abandoning the aesthetic vantage point and returning to the pre-reflective, immediate immersion in the film-experience: the ‘who-dun-it’ perspective in which which we usually, but for those rare retrospective aesthetic experiences, inhabit the world. It would require--a lot of imagination.
Tavernier's portrait of an odious innocent-as-criminal unchecked by laws or conscience is unforgettable. Cordier the most likable and gregarious psychopaths in all of cinema. The entire film is an exercise in incongruous, misleading characterizations and hypocritical speeches. A curious co-incidence of directorial and diegetic duplicity Tavernier must have relished pulling off with such aplomb. And I must say it was a genuine pleasure, in the rarified aesthetic sense, to be duped by his subtle-devious directorial machinations; a pleasure equal parts outrage and amusement. If “guilty pleasure” applies to any film, it’s Coup de Torchon. Not incidentally, Jean Genet, infamous denizen of the world beyond good and evil, cared very much for it. Go figure.