April 13, 2011


This rather terrible poster is the best
I could find
Coup de Torchon (or Clean Slate) played at the Wellington Film Society as part of their Isabelle Huppert mini-programme (three films within the wider context of the Film Society programme). The film is based on American writer Jim Thompson's pulp novel Pop. 1280 but transplants the action to French West Africa in the lead up to WWII. After having watched the recent adaptation of his The Killer Inside Me it was interesting to see some of the same themes and preoccupations coming through in this very different work.

Our "hero" is a small town police chief, Lucien, (he is, in fact, the entire police force) who just wants to be left alone to sleep. He's a passive character at the beginning: letting his wife and her "brother" walk all over him, being pushed around by two local pimps; basically struggling to avoid conflict at all costs. These types of characters can tend to annoy the hell out of me and make it an initial struggle to follow: that schlub just took your pudding?! Do something about it man! Thankfully, as the film progresses and we spend more time with Lucien we come to sympathise with him a little bit more. Sure, he's a chump but he begins to be our chump. That is, of course, until he goes totally off the rails.

Lucien makes the coldly calculated decision to solve his problems by brutally murdering them. This seem to work, as no-one can really bring themselves to suspect Lucien; he's so easy-going, so manipulable it's almost inconceivable he could harm a fly. But there's something dark roiling inside him and Philippe Noiret is fantastic as Lucien. He's lazy and uncaring but in a vaguely charming Gallic kind of way, as he mopes around the streets. But there's a blankness there, a dark monster that he's shrugged off the leash. The only thing he seems to want is to be left alone, and he goes about making that so by calmly manipulating all those around him.

As with The Killer Inside Me, the protagonist juggles a few women while loving none of them. Of course, this film doesn't have the brutal beating of said women by the psychotic protagonist; Lucien saves his calm rage for those he deems to have deserved it, those who have wronged him in some fashion. Which doesn't mean they get off scot-free; all the women who come in contact with him (his wife, his young mistress, a young teacher who moves to town and becomes the new object of his affection) suffer in some way; he is callously brutal to them. Huppert as Lucien's young mistress (and wife to a violent drunk) Rose handles a possibly unsympathetic role with grace and, well, a sense of fun. She's young, yes, but she carries the tiredness of someone twice her age.

But hey, it's not all gloom! There are moments of black humour you cannot help chuckling at (though some do fall flat). The sense of atmosphere and tension slowly builds and builds. At times though (especially during the latter half of the second act), I felt like it meandered. That instead of being a slow build it became a slow let-down, with all the air going out of the drama. Digression began to follow digression and I found myself just wanting to get to the point of it all. An interesting and entertaining sun-bleached neo-noir that just needed to pick up the pace to really hit home.

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