directed by Bertrand Tavernier (1981)
If nihilists believed in heroes then Lucien, the small town sheriff in Coup de Torchon could be the man for them. He comes by way of Jim Thompson, darkest noirest extraordinaire and his novel, Pop. 1280. That book is set in 1917 Texas but the movie is cleverly moved to 1930s West French Africa, Senegal.
I haven’t read the book to compare it to (though it’s definitely making my list), but I think director Bertrand Tavernier has captured the weird, almost surreal darkness of Thompson’s work most effectively on film. (P.S. – other notable adaptations: Serie Noir, After Dark My Sweet).
To say Lucien is disrespected is an understatement. He’s called ass licker and turd more than by name, he is kicked by other policemen, pushed around by the local pimps, mocked by his own wife – and for good reason. As a policemen he never arrests anyone and ignores crime as much as possible, even when own mistress is being abused publicly.
He seems to initially be a gentle and simple sort who detests violence and has more respect for natives than most. Which is why you are almost on his side when he begins to take action against the “trash” of the city by committing righteous murder.
But, as the film progresses and his motives become less about justice than his selfishness, any semblance of morality is blown. Played with just right amount of pathos and underlying insanity by Philippe Noiret, the sheriff, if I had to imagine him cast today, could be pulled off by a bitter little Patton Oswald and his unassuming baby face.
Scrounging around in the mud of human depravity with him are his scheming wife played by the always amazing Stephane Audran, her “brother”/secret lover – a half witted brute (I’d cast John C Rielly in my remake), his mistress, Rose, a piece of amoral work with a naive lust for violence and chaos played by the also always amazing Isabelle Huppert.
The cast is astounding, turning almost cartoonish physical comedy into something dimensional. Not that it’s cartoonish due to sloppy film making, quite the opposite, Tavernier manages the tough balance of darkest comedy only to reveal something very sinister.
The totally bizarre alternate ending, featuring dancing man apes, is worth a look on the Criterion Collection release. The only way this low profile masterpiece could have better is if it had stayed in.
Click here for the rest of Coup de Torchon