The Film: Coup de Torchon (1981)

The Principals: Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Stéphane Audran, Eddy Mitchell. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier.

The Premise: This adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel Pop. 1280, transposes Thompson’s location of a small Texas county to a small town in 1930’s French-speaking West Africa. Lucien Cordier (Noiret) is an affable, push-over slob whose wife (Stéphane Audran) seems to be nonchalantly having an affair with the dip-shit she claims is her brother (Eddy Mitchell). But Cordier doesn’t really seem to care. After all, he’s having an affair with Rose (Isabelle Huppert), the abused wife of a local surly. And the new school teacher. Mainly he just doesn’t care about anything though. He is the town’s only law enforcement, but he never arrests anyone and often lingers just a little bit too long when he hears trouble, hoping things will end by the time he lazily moseys over. In fact, he’s such a pushover that two local lowlifes feel they can get away with literally pushing him over as a prank. And they do. That is until Cordier takes a trip into the big city to meet with one of his superiors, who also takes pleasure in abusing Cordier. After the superior tells Cordier he needs to show these goons who is boss, Cordier promptly murders the two men. Then he murders the local surly. Soon he is becoming a bit of psycho.

Is It Good: Quite. The French have always had a knack for dark comedy, and Coup de Torchon successfully delivers on both the darkness and the comedy. The film opens dramatically, with ominous weirdness as we see Cordier light a fire for some African children in the chill of the twilight, all set to some truly intense baroque score from Philippe Sarde. But after that the film settles into a chillaxed repose of meandering light comedy. You could easily think the movie was never going to go anywhere – that we were just going to continue witnessing the world shitting on Cordier and him mostly deserving it – were it not for the presence of Jim Thompson’s name floating around the project. Anyone familiar with Thompson’s work, like The Grifters or The Killer Inside Me, knows at some point someone is going to die; mostly likely someones. But what makes the movie such fun is it comfortable tone. Tavernier never ramps things up once Cordier starts going blood simple. The film continues on at its same leisurely, low energy pace. Just as Cordier does.

The African setting is really gorgeous. I’m not sure why Tavernier chose to set the story there, but it definitely adds a novel layer to Thompson’s story (which the film otherwise follows quite faithfully). Presumably the decision was race based, as Tavernier has spiced things up with plenty commentary on colonialism and racism.

Despite some complications that come Cordier’s way, this isn’t really a movie about plot. This is a character film. Cordier is a bizarre protagonist (though not that bizarre for a Jim Thompson story). It is hard to respect him until he starts killing people, which is of course hard to respect in its own obvious way. Philippe Noiret is perfect for the part, lending rich believability to the dichotomy of the character’s intelligence level — outwardly a simpleton, who eventually surprises us and himself with the effortlessness of his devious cunning and sociopathic ways. It is interesting to watch the character travel down his dark road – pulling himself further and further with dubious logic – which begins with an air of twisted justice but eventually becomes self-serving, in one of the film’s darker moments, when Cordier decides to do away with a friendly African.

Stéphane Audran and Eddy Mitchell make a great comedic duo as supposed brother and sister. Mitchell’s Nono is so lazy and stupid he makes Cordier seem positively over-achieving by comparison. But the real big show here is I ♥ Huckabees‘s Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the only person who knows the truth (at least some of the truth) about Cordier’s murderous ways, and couldn’t care less. She’s happy to be rid of her husband, and happy to step up the level of her affair with Cordier. They are peas in a pod. Huppert is positively adorable in the role, not to mention extremely sexy. It is a great character. Mousy yet hard-edged.

Is It Worth A Look: The film is undeniably slow paced. And despite this being a Thompson adaptation, I don’t think it can really be classified as film noir. It is too sunny and too funny. Thompson fans will definitely want to check it out. As will lovers of French cinema.