Clean Slate [Coup de Torchon]

Lazy, no-good town sheriff makes bad
Released:
1981

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Starring: Phillippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Guy Marchand

The Setup:

Small-town sheriff is considered idiot, but is deviously planning revenge on his enemies.

Discussion:

The same film festival of French Crime films that led me to Murderous Maids and Wages of Fear brought this to my attention, and coupled with my admiration of films made from Jim Thompson novels [The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet] it went straight to the top of my list. Well, actually, it went to the top of my list because Netflix didn't have Jaws 3 in at the moment, but this turned out to be even more rewarding—if you can believe that's possible.

The setting of the novel, called Pop. 1280, was the American South, but here it is moved to 1938 Senegal, then a French colony. We meet our protagonist, Lucien, who is the chief of police of this small town. He stands in a field, looking at a small group of African boys. It starts to get dark, he looks up, and it's an eclipse. He builds a fire, and as he walks away, the kids run over and stand by the fire. He walks into town, where a white man in a white suit comes out of these ramshackle outhouses. "I thought it was judgment day," he says of the eclipse, then bitches because Lucien won't repair the latrines—but Lucien won't repair them until Vanderbruck—that's the guy in the suit—gives the approval to move them from right under his window. Lucien tries to get some lovin' from his wife Huguette, but she makes no bones about despising him for being a coward and an "ass licker." She lavishes attention all over her brother Nono, who takes Lucien's lunch right off the table from in front of him. Later Huguette and her brother are embracing in a way that is a little bit more than sibling affection.

This is one of those movies that doesn't bother to explain much of what's going on, or who anyone is, and given the strangeness of the whole milieu and the time period, it can have you staring at the screen wondering what the hell is going on for long periods… but I've come to sort of like that feeling, and vastly prefer it to everything being spelled out and boring. Furthermore, in the first few scenes, one is really unable to make out what the tone of this is supposed to be, as some of the scenes of Lucien's humiliation and his air of stupidity make it seem like a comedy, but we also know there's going to be some violence coming up… what is going on here?

For example, two pimps Lucien meet him in town outright push him over into the dirt, quite egregiously. Lucien pours salt into the coffee of his brother-in-law. Then a woman he knows, Rose, is being beaten by her husband outside, as Lucien is getting a shave. He claims to have water in his ears, so he cannot hear, and keeps waiting until the sound has died down, then claims that the trouble must be over. So he's a massive coward and everyone hates him for it. Rose, the woman who was being beaten earlier, loves him and lets him feel her up in the street. There is another sequence with the pimps in which they take target practice on the black corpses floating in the river. Lucien protests, and we see that he is taking bribes from the pimps. They then trip him again, into the river with the corpses. Soon after, he is asking this fellow Marcel [a fellow lawman in another town] what he should do about the pimps. Long story, but Marcel ends up literally kicking Lucien in the ass. He makes Lucien get up, and he and another guy kick his ass again. He tells Lucien that he should kill those pimps. And then Lucien does—he pulls a gun on them, makes them sing a song to humiliate them, and shoots them. He drags their bodies and throws them in the same river they had earlier tripped him into—the one with the corpses floating in it.

That night, Marcel shows up at his door in the middle of the night, terrified that Lucien might actually have done it—which would then implicate himself. Lucien upbraids him for being silly—as though Lucien could kill anyone! He tells Marcel to go to the whorehouse, and impress all the girls by telling them how he took care of those pimps. The next day, he keeps feeding Marcel booze and encouraging him to tell everyone he sees how he took care of those pimps. He does. Then, as Marcel is leaving, Lucien informs him that the pimps are indeed dead, and here after Marcel had just boasted all over town of killing them. "You heard right, Marcel," he says, and informs him that he had just better hope those bodies never show up. Have a nice day.

Okay, that gives you a little taste of what is to come, and that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot. The synopsis that gets circulated about this movie is that Lucien decides he is going to get rid of all his enemies, and start over with a "Clean Slate." Well, I have no idea where that came from, because that bears very little relation to the film that follows. What it implies is that Lucien is this genius who is masterminding all of this stuff while consciously arranging it so that everyone around him thinks he's an idiot, which ascribes a lot more intentionality to him than is there. After he kills the two pimps he is still the chump, it's not like we're suddenly privy to his genius plans. What this loses in general awesomeness [in terms of the movie not being this vigilante revenge tale] it gains in pure character complexity, which becomes the main attribute of the film: the character is just so rich and fascinating. You don't just figure out who he is and what he wants, you are still trying to get a read on him up until the final moments.

Other attributes are that Lucien is far from 100% clean and admirable. We can see that he cares about the Africans around him, relates to them a little bit, and this is the source of a lot of his dislike for certain others. But on the other hand he is not exactly devoted to people we might think he would be, and screws over some people we thought he would have protected. So this makes him more interestingly complex. Another good thing about the movie is that it finds ways to develop the story in unexpected directions. You think “Oh, okay, he’s going to bring about the ruin of his enemies,” and settle in for that story, but it just continues to divert, follow its own direction, and toward the end, come up with unexpected ways in which Lucien’s carefully-arranged machinations may turn around to bite him in the ass. This is because he’s is ultimately just improvising as he goes along, acting on his vengeful impulses, and this makes him more interesting and volatile.

So the next day after watching this film I went out and bought the novel, and read the entire thing that day. The novel is more rich and complex than the film—though the film does a very good job of adaptation and capturing the complexities of this character. What the novel also has that this film doesn’t is the main character’s wonderful first-person narration with this amazing Southern drollery and marvelous turns of phrase. One of my favorites was: “I’m not saying you’re a liar, because that wouldn’t be polite. I’m just saying that if I LOVED liars, I’d be hugging you up tight.” In the month or so since I’ve watched this film I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Jim Thompson [and hard-boiled writing in general] and have read four of his other novels—and have five more on the way. At this point I can say that Pop. 1280 is truly among his best, more literary and complex, and you won’t go wrong with reading it. Anyway, you can look forward to a lot more noir and crime movies on this site in the coming months, as I watch the film adaptations of all the hard-boiled novels I’m now ferociously burning through.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a dark and dirty French film with devious people acting out of their basest impulses, this is a very satisfying watch.

Should you watch it?

Sure thing.

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