Coup de torchon (1981)
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
February 29 at BAMcinématek's "A Hell of a Writer: Jim Thompson"
The French screenwriting titan Jean Aurenche co-wrote Coupe de torchon with director Bertrand Tavernier when Aurenche was nearly 80, but the writing roils with the vinegar and crassness of shit-stirring youth. Tavernier had been a fan of the writer both before and after the latter was savaged in a notorious 1954 François Truffaut essay that hurt his reputation and salability. Tavernier felt that Truffaut missed the deserved target—the staid French establishment directors. By 1974, Aurenche's assignments had slowed to a trickle when Tavernier engaged him to collaborate on the Georges Simenon adaptation The Watchmaker, their first of five teamings.
Coup de Torchon ("Clean Slate"), their ingenious adaptation of Jim Thompson's pulp novel Pop. 1280, transplants the action from Texas circa 1915 to West Africa just before WWII. A free-floating Steadicam trails Philippe Noiret's constable through washed-out, anti-exotic alleys and plains (the colors are dusty pastels and the only wildlife are mangy dogs), as the put-upon soft touch reveals himself to be a sociopathic murderer with Nietzschean notions of his own moral primacy. His parallel Christ complex finds a symbol in the town priest's old wooden crucifix, its Christ eaten by termites The priest calmly discusses the termite incident while pounding nails through his new casti-ron effigy.
Noiret, another frequent Tavernier collaborator, chose his constable's undignified off-pink shirt as a tribute to Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, but his character is light years less likable. At first he begs pity, with his hangdog expression and mischievous nonchalance in the face of wife Stéphane Audran's open cheating (he dumps salt in the chap's coffee). He is pushed into a lake by pimps (whose bribe money he still pockets), and is repeatedly kicked in the ass by officers supposedly trying to teach him a lesson—but his takeaway from their advice is that when insulted too often, there is a time to kill. Pity and sympathy are dashed as that hangdog face is proved to mask a malevolent and vain intelligence. Thanks in large part to a vivacious turn by a freckly Isabelle Huppert as Noiret's good-time girltoy, Coup de Torchon is never not a comedy, even as it digs around in bloody grey areas. The director knew that he'd achieved his intended uncertainty when his friend Jean Genet told him that the film was "like a paradox written by Chesterton."