COUP DE TORCHON

I've picked out at least three stories in COUP DE TORCHON. The first is psychological, the second could be political, the third would love to be metaphysical. In 1938, in Bourkassa, a village of French West Africa comprising "Population 1,275" (the name of the celebrated Jim Thompson novel from which the film is adapted), the cop is called Lucien Cordier. He's a naive, spineless man, easy to hold up to ridicule. {Philippe} Noiret is the hero of the first story: his big body takes blows and doesn't return them, effaces itself. But Cordier is held in contempt by people themselves so evidently contemptible (Marielle as a pimp, Marchand as a soldier and Eddy Mitchell as a notorious parasite) that the spectator feels that all this is exaggerated, that there is an eel under the rock. And if Cordier wasn't so weak or naive? And if he cooked something up for us? (One knows the importance of cooking in {Bertrand} Tavernier's films.)

Effectively, a second  takes the relay of the first: Lucien Cordier sets himself to kill, without warning but without anger. We are here in the "even at the base of abjection he finds the force to rebel against an inadmissible situation" story. In this occurrence, the situation in Africa on the day before war, Bourkassa like a cabaret set, the intense mediocrity of colonial life, with its African zombies and its lost and repulsive little white men. Noiret is also the hero of this story. This time, it's his big body that gives blows and his intelligence that plans them. Oh good, says the relieved spectator: a little revolt, a little simplistic anti-colonialism is good. And at the same time, he's not convinced, the spectator; he says that in 1981, an anti-colonialist film is a little facile and almost retro. Today, a director, especially of the left, should go further, interrogate more deeply. (Look at Schlondorff.) And if Cordier wasn't only courageous and rebellious? And if Tavernier cooked us up something else?

So the third story tumbles down, the most ambitious of the three. The cabaret becomes very bloody and Cordier very talkative. Not weak, not naive, he gives a true course in Evil and negative theology for novices. All this explains itself: if the cop never arrests anyone, it's because, lucidly, he knows that all his little world is condemned - and him with it. So he would be, not one who kills nor one who saves, but one who destroys indifferently those who are already lost and who ignore it (from the ignoble Mercaillou to the good Negro Vendredi.) And when he kills, it's a little of himself that dies. Noiret is more than ever the hero of the story, a little chubby exterminating angel, certainly, but implacable. Beginning as a thick farce on the side of an African Clochermerle, COUP DE TORCHON would love to end on the side of the aces of error and redemption. On the side of Christians. Ford or Graham Greene, for example. In 1938, Tavernier tells us that the white man's burden (again!) was very heavy to carry. Thank God.

I again ask myself why these three stories set end to end don't manage to make a good film, at least a film. Why COUP DE TORCHON remains less troubling than its subject, less risky than old-fashioned, less dynamic than agitated. Why the direction in steadycam transforms the space into a rugby field and the characters into a confused mass, making the spectator seasick without moving him? I respond to myself:

1. Something about Noiret doesn't work. From the beginning of the film, it's clear that that the game  of Noiret is just a setting, bringing not a gram of trouble to a supposedly sulfurous story. Noiret plays naifs with a clever air, weaklings with a hard air: he equalizes everything, he is monotone. One sees the actor measure out his setting, one doesn't see the character take form. He sweats, he agitates himself, he falls, but that doesn't mean that he moves. COUP DE TORCHON fails to make us discover "another Noiret," who would be for Tavernier the object of an affectionate documentary and not a narcissistic double.

2. Something about Cordier doesn't work. In the film, there is only one character. Only one that has a history, a soul, questions in a world where no one poses them: it's Cordier. The others are just the decor of his inner trajectory. One can find them more or less successful: Huppert rather good cast against type, Marielle convincing in a second half-role, Audran equal to herself, Marchand already stereotyped, Eddy Mitchell evidently remarkable in the role of the little chatterbox Nono. He only prevents them from weighing up to Cordier-Noiret, the only one who advances the story and who's interesting to all who feel. It's as if Tavernier asked spectators to laugh (even falsely) at the spectacle offered by the little whites of Bourkassa but that, of those who consider themselves deep thinkers, he begs them to direct their regard towards the little Africans who eat squatting down under the eye of Cordier in the first and last shots of the film. Would the meaning of the film be here? The meaning, perhaps, but not the film. And what one sees is the film, not its meaning.

3. Something about the dialogue doesn't work. So Noiret lends his body and voice. But it's no more than a loan, justly. The motor of the film is the dialogue, and like one could expect, that of {Jean} Aurenche and Tavernier oscillates between the funny story and the disenchanted aphorism about the human condition. The illustrated  screenplay is a tenacious film  genre,  returning from afar (but it's returning, that's sure). It rarely produces interesting films but it pleases the public that, titillated every twenty seconds by a bon mot, becomes the film's accomplice more than its spectator. This showiness in  dialogue writing only "works" in two cases: that of the actor-writer (Guitry) or that of the great, genial show-off (Jouvet, Brasseur, Berry performed their "numbers," without caring about the rest.) Today, those great, genial show-offs are dead. One must invent others. It's clear that Tavernier is devoting himself to it. He has a lot on his plate.

4. Something about the Tradition of Quality doesn't work. Obviously, I'm playing naive (and weak), I know that all this has a name: Tradition of Quality and that Tavernier has made no secret of his love for this cinema "of the old school", where the dialogue always matters more than the story and casting over direction. Good. But the more the Tradition of Quality returns (and it returns at full speed, unfortunately) the better one understands the extent to which it wasn't only an aesthetic affair, but an attitude of spirit, an ideology (the big word is let out, never mind.) Formal academicism, the submission of cinema to literature and literature to the author's words, the revindication of professionalism  always arrive in tandem with a pessimistic vision of a dull, disenchanted world. Academicism is lazy. It's illusory to want to change this rotting world, so why the Devil make it the subject of a story and direction, of a game with the spectator? To what goal? Why incarnate Evil in a story (like Hitchcock, Bresson and Dreyer have done, to remain among the Christians) where all the world's horror can be summed up at little cost in a bon mot, on the counter of a bistro, in Bourkassa or elsewhere? Because it goes quicker, it's less difficult and upsets no one. The favorite character of the old Tradition of Quality cinema (one finds it with Clair, Carné, Autant-Lara), the one to whom one never tells stories because he already knows everything, the bad public quickly blasé, is the Devil. One must one day make a history of French cinema through the character of the Devil. It would be very revealing.

If I've told the three stories of COUP DE TORCHON, it's because it is clear for me that Tavernier hesitates between them. A psychological story? To what goal? And one passes to the political story. To what goal? And one passes to the metaphysical. I had the feeling of a pre-determined escape- a shame because this Christian scenario seems to interest Tavernier the man. It's Tavernier the artist who doesn't follow.

Translated by Steve Erickson, with assistance from Philippe St-Germain.

Originally published in LIBERATION November 6, 1981.