One of veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier’s most memorable thrillers, Coup de torchon was adapted from hard-boiled American writer Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. Despite, or perhaps because of, a change of setting from the American South to colonial French West Africa in 1938, the bleak pessimistic tone of the novel comes through more so here than in any other Thompson adaptations – the most famous being The Getaway (1972 and 1994) and The Grifters (1990). Thompson’s post-war existentialism fits the pre-war colonial world perfectly. Of course, by the 1980s the image of colonials was no longer that of god-fearing missionaries bringing light into the Dark Continent and we are presented with a bunch of self-serving, lazy, dirty and abusive racists. The Senegalese town of Bourkassa is a perfect stand-in for small-town America as a symbol of a world in decay. It could almost be the Wild West: life is cheap and the law corrupt; victims of dysentery float down river, local gangsters shooting at the corpses for fun.
Police chief Lucien Cordier – played by Tavernier regular Philippe Noiret, brilliantly underperforming here – is a man of inaction. Although he lacks the others inhabitants’ malevolence, he has few positive traits of his own. The first part of the film establishes the extent of his inertia. His slovenly appearance is barely altered by a trip to the barber’s. He is bullied by two local pimps and humiliated by his superior; he is the butt of their jokes, literally. He lives with his nagging wife (Stéphane Audran) and what is either her lover or her brother, although Cordier can’t be bothered to find out and simply resorts to putting salt in his rival’s coffee. Even when he does act, he does it surreptitiously.
However, he begins to realise that not intervening makes him guilty by association and he has a sudden change of heart. In a great ‘to be or not to be’ scene, he explains to the town’s priest how it is that he is expected to do nothing: that is why he was chosen for the job. The scene is underscored by a wonderful pseudo-religious visual metaphor: after termites have destroyed yet another cross, Cordier holds the Christ still while the priest hammers in the nails. Thus he begins the ingenious ‘clean-up’ of the title, although quite what he gains from this transformation is less than certain.
Thematically, we could be watching a film noir, but with the pace of the tropics, the high-contrast black and white photography replaced by an almost constant sun-bleached washed-out beige; and instead of tension or suspense there is black comedy. The film’s deliberately unsubtle metaphors are also played for humour. The stinking latrines right underneath Cordier’s window that he at first tried to ignore become a target of his clean-up campaign alongside the town’s bullies and criminals.
In the interview included on the DVD, Tavernier claims the idea to set the film in Africa came from reading Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. With the combination of Céline and Jim Thompson as the literary influences it’s not surprising that Coup de torchon is such a dark existential misanthropic film; but it’s also somehow funny, sad and just a little bit disturbing.