THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
A lot of seemingly disparate elements come together surprisingly well in Bertrand Tavernier's excellent Coup De Torchon (1980). Working from pulp author Jim Thompson's classic novel "Pop 1280" Tavernier made some significant changes: He moved the locale from the American South to French colonized Africa. Where the novel contains significant statements on American racism in the 60's, Tavernier takes a look at the colonial attitude, a different, but equally potent brand of racism. By making this shift he has changed the dynamic from one group containing - and holding down - the other within itself to a group, the French, coming into the land of another, the Senegalese, and subverting their own home. This is an important difference, since the treatment of the indigenous people, while not the main plot point, informs the tone of the entire film. Most of the French characters are portrayed as selfish, violent oafs with far too much anger and bitterness in them.
The story concerns a local policeman, played by a very subtle Philippe Noiret, who has tired of being taken advantage of by more powerful and corrupt men. He slowly takes his revenge, but not always on those who deserve it. He is a fascinating character, full of moral ambiguity and confusion. He clearly abhors the racism of his neighbors, but also plays into the violence of his society. He allows everyone to think that he is simple-minded by never committing to anything (He often makes statements like "I'm not saying you're wrong, but I'm not saying you're right") and by reflecting back what others want to see in him. His relations with his wife, her live-in "brother" (a mysterious relationship), his girlfriend, fellow cops, a local school teacher, and everyone else are complicated by his sense that he has a greater perspective. They are all caught up in their own miseries whereas he feels the weight of the whole society on his shoulders.
The film is full of strange images (like mismatched socks) and symbolism (Noiret helps the local clergyman hammer nails into a Jesus statue on a cross) that creates an atmosphere where everything has meaning. A film that rewards multiple viewings, Coup De Torchon seems to have something to say about men, women, race, society, and what we hold dear. The location likens it to other great films like Wages of Fear and Casablanca, films that also make statements on isolation and how humans treat each other in extreme circumstances. By setting his film noir in Africa and steering away from typical noir lighting and sets Tavernier has created a film that crosses boundaries, stylistically and thematically.
Criterion's rendering of the film is fantastic. The print is beautiful, looking very much like Tavernier must have imagined it. The transfer is anamorphic and, save a couple of flaws, the print is wonderful. This is a film where every shot has clearly been carefully constructed and it shows.
The audio is Dolby Digital mono and sounds great. The French dialog is subtitled in English but the African dialog is not. The subtitles are removable.
Also worth noting is Philipe Sarde's fantastic score. Consisting mostly of jazz, ranging from hard-boiled staccato to
romantic, this is one of the finest scores I've heard in a long time.
The main extra is a lengthy interview with the director. This is an informative and thoughtful interview where Tavernier goes into great detail discussing the location, politics, and history of this fascinating film.
Also included is an alternate ending explained by the director. This version of the ending, involving dancing monkeys, is too bizarre and too literary to have worked in the film, even though Tavernier, who seems glad to have made the change, loved it in the book.
A trailer is also included.
Coup De Torchon should appeal to a wide variety of people: Fans of films noir, foreign films, detective movies, social dramas, and cinematography will all love this film. Luckily the Criterion banner means that the film will get more attention than it might otherwise.
Also by director Bertrand Tavernier:
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
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