Coup de torchon (1981)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: a killer inside.

Jim Thompson probably would have slid into obscurity had it not been for the French. The existentialist writers adored Thompson’s sordid and challenging antiheroes, and it’s of no surprise that he was named the “Dimestore Dostoevsky” for his explorations of rationality and irrationality. Despite this, he’s proven an incredibly difficult author to adapt for the screen. I haven’t yet seen Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (or the 1976 original), but the Grifters and The Getaway (both versions) missed the luridness of Thompson’s writing. Coup de torchon (Clean Slate) is regarded as the most notable adaptation of his work, and Bertrand Tavernier certainly encapsulates the malevolence and angst of his brilliant Pop. 1280. A more arguable point is whether the film resonates as much as the novel—something Philippe Noiret’s warm performance as the exterminating angel and Tavernier’s impressive camerawork greatly assists in.

A ‘daylight’ noir, with twists, turns, and double-crossing the only constant, the film centres on Lucien Cordier (Noiret), a small town police chief in pre-World War II Senegal. He’s juggling mistresses (including a typically excellent Isabelle Huppert), a harridan of a wife, his wife’s mysterious idiot of a brother, and his job—the only problem being he’s not seen as particularly competent in the role. As his frustration with the situation grows, the death count starts piling up. The genius of the novel is in the way it draws you into the viewpoint of its protagonist, Nick Corey: an unreliable narrator who is extremely likeable from the outset, so much so that his violence and general misbehaviour fails to shock. Such a subjective placing of the audience is a difficult feat, and arguably Coup de torchon doesn’t allow us to indulge in Cordier’s predicament the way Thompson’s text does. But it is funny, and Noiret’s performance lends considerable sympathy to a seemingly interchangeable personality.

Tavernier’s transplanting of the novel’s seedy Southern setting to colonial Senegal is an intriguing concept. Cordier is someone who utilises the racism of his enemies to his own advantage, but at the same time also threatens to spill over into bigotry himself. While the racism of the novel was used to demonstrate the repression and impotence of the whitefollk in Corey’s hometown, the French racism is depicted as an overwhelming arrogance and indifference to the land in which they were in. Meanwhile, Corey’s mistreatment of women is tempered not only by Cordier’s geniality in the film (a point which by all accounts Winterbottom pushed hard on with The Killer Inside Me), but the impressive performances of Huppert and Stéphane Audran as his wife, which had the effect of humanising the female figures in the narrative.

As a film, it stands alone well. Tavernier’s camerawork is superb: floating through space as it follows the characters; its dusty setting particularly evocative. The narrative is well-structured, and the whirlpool-of-a-climax is suitably heightened by the tension that mounts in anticipation. Above all, the nucleus of Thompson’s universe is captured: dirty men trapped in a dirty world, their only possible response to join the rest and wallow in the filth.

*  *  *

Next week at the Wellington Film Society, Alexander Sokurov’s one-take wonder, Russian Ark, which The Lumière Reader’s STEVE GARDEN has written thoughtfully on in the following appreciation.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.