erik lundegaard

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Coup de Torchon (1982)

In most “worm turns” stories, the put-upon hero is generally brave in his passivity (the old “Kung Fu” series) but even if he isn't, even if he is a bit of a coward (Straw Dogs), he certainly feels brave once he finally gives back what’s due. That’s the cinematic moment we wait for. That’s our wish fulfillment. Take that, bullies of the world! You could say the entire superhero genre is built upon this desire.

In Coup de Torchon, Philippe Noiret — who later played the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso and Pablo Neruda in Il Postino — plays Lucien Cordier, the lone police officer in a sleepy West African village in the 1930s: Population 1285. He’s a lazy man who wants food and sex and the world to turn right; when it doesn’t, and despite his position, he's not much interested in righting it. He shrugs. His wife, Hugette, keeps her lover, her “brother” Nono, in their cramped apartment. The local pimps mock him and push him around. The local businessman ignores him. His lover, Rose (a young Isabelle Huppert), is beaten by her husband and Lucien does nothing to stop him. In all of this he feels less cowardly than extremely passive, and the worst elements in town, and in people, simply feed upon his passivity.

But there’s gotta be a “one day,” right? So one day he goes to a neighboring town and receives advice — including two humiliating kicks in the pants — from the constable there, and he takes this advice back to the village, where, next to the river in which the locals bury their dead, and whose corpses the pimps use for target practice, Lucien confronts the two pimps, makes them sing a song, and then kills them in cold blood. It’s a stunning turn of events because you don’t see why the worm turns; he just does. Lucien goes from passive to active but his core personality feels the same. If anything he feels more cowardly in taking his revenge.

In this way, all the wrongs in his life are righted. He kills Rose’s husband, Marcaillou, in cold blood, and then kicks him after he’s dead. He arranges for the businessman to fall into the slop of his own outhouse. He kills a local, Vendredi, who knows he killed Marcaillou. So the innocent are being rounded up, too, but Lucien sees no innocence. His philosophy grows heavier and colder. “Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal,” he tells Vendredi. “Know who the joker is? It's everybody.” Or so his experience has shown him.

The more lives he takes, the greater his claims to holiness. “I'm not a policeman, George,” he tells the brother of one of the deceased pimps. “I'm Jesus Christ in person, sent here with a load of crosses, each bigger than the next.” He sets up events so that Rose kills Hugette and Nono, and when Rose asks him why, if he was just outside, he didn’t stop her, he replies, his calm, matter-of-factness accentuating his insanity, “If I put temptation in front of you, it's not a reason to use it. I just help folks reveal their true character.” Most fail the test. All fail the test. It’s Judgment Day and it’s not pretty.

Coup de Torchon is translated as either “Clean Slate” or “Clean Up” but there’s nothing clean here. Everything is blurred. Just how cowardly is Lucien in the beginning? Just how insane is he in the end? We don't really know. It's a philosophically bleak but intellectually engaging film. It uses the wish-fulfillment genre to tell us what we don’t wish to know.

—August 7, 2008

© 2008 Erik Lundegaard