“I’ve got no choice. First, I’m underpaid; second, my wife takes all my money;and third, fining you is practically a civic duty.”
In the French film Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), Jim Thompson’s noir novel Pop. 1280 is transposed from the rural American South to French West Africa. And here the film becomes a blistering critique of the corrosive nature of colonialism. You can draw your own conclusions about the connection between the American South and colonialism, but the bottom line is that the film works.
It’s 1938, and the world is on the brink of WWII. While at first the spectre of war appears to be a daunting prospect for the French characters stuck in this West African outpost, as the plot spins out, it becomes clear that the prospect of imminent war is really a matter of slow bubbling excitement because it represents a shift in the doldrums and a heightened connection with the outside world. By the end of the film, war has been declared and within minutes blacks are rounded up at gunpoint as an almost carnival atmosphere is unleashed within the white power structure.
The protagonist of Coup De Torchon is the middle-aged, flabby, sweaty Chief of Police Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret). Stuck in some African town for eons, Cordier has gone to pot–physically and morally. Whereas in most regions of the planet, being the Chief of Police is a position of some importance, Cordier is regarded by the other displaced Westerners with scorn, and he’s treated just marginally better than the blacks. From the minute Cordier gets up, his days are an endless humiliation–beginning with his nasty wife Huguette Cordier (played with housewifely slovenliness by Stephane Audran) and her so-called ‘brother’ Nono (Eddy Mitchell). Blatantly cuckolded in his own home, things don’t get better when Cordier steps out the front door. Whether he’s treated like a janitor by the wealthy Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune) who pisses in the public toilet right underneath the Chief of Police’s window, or whether Cordier is the butt of jokes made by the local pimps, he leads a miserable life. But in order to swallow these humiliations, Cordier pretends they aren’t happening. So when he sees his wife cuddling, kissing and fondling her ‘brother,’ Cordier resorts to petty acts, and he tries to pass off the pimps’ rudeness as friendly fun, but Cordier’s humiliations at the hands of the white population escalate until he finally asks for advice from a fellow policeman.
Cordier takes the advice to heart and begins eliminating his enemies, fabricating stories or circumstances about their deaths, and as the Chief of Police, he’s in a perfect position to exact revenge and cover up his crimes.
It’s difficult to identify with the lengths Cordier goes to swallow his pride and accept the humiliations shoved down his throat on a daily basis. Perhaps the most egregious of these humiliations are those he suffers from his wife, but then again Cordier has a mistress to console himself with, the spunky, married Rose Mercaillau (Isabelle Huppert). Cordier is basically a coward at heart and even allows his mistress to be beaten in public by her husband rather than openly challenge him. And as is typical with Cordier, he is comfortable only with sneakily attacking rather than challenging and confronting. Ultimately acts of brutality do not give Cordier courage.
The native blacks in the film wisely stay out of the way of the white people as much as possible, and the areas in which the whites and the blacks merge is often violent and explosive with the Africans on the receiving end of the erratic behaviour of the whites. A couple of scenes indicate that the social behaviour of the French offers a degree of entertainment for the native blacks–albeit if watched safely from a distance. While Cordier can hardly be described as a defender of the blacks by any means, his speeches indicate that too many years in the colonies have left him incapable of making a moral decision, and that colonialism has eroded away any standards of good and evil he possessed.
While the film from director Bertrand Tavernier gives no hint about Cordier’s standards of behaviour in his pre-Africa years, nonetheless statements dropped by Cordier indicate that his sense of morality has been scrambled by the things he’s seen in Africa:
“At first it is horrible. But then you start to think about starving kids, little girls sold into slavery, women whose sex is sewn up… God created murder out of pure kindness. Murder is nothing compared to those horrors. ”
Cordier latches on to the new, idealistic, female teacher who arrives in town to teach the natives to speak French, and while he observes that this is a noble mission, he sardonically notes that she will enable the black children “to read their daddy’s name on French war memorials.” While Cordier finds the teacher admirable, it’s not long before she too is disgusted with him for his lack of moral courage.
There is the sense that far from home, the French characters act in a fashion that would not be acceptable on their home turf and that Cordier is ultimately influenced by those around him. Vanderbrouck, for example, wouldn’t be pissing in a roofless toilet if he lived in Paris and Madame Cordier might be more mindful of her neighbours if she was stuck in a small French town. The pimps wouldn’t intimidate the Chief of Police, and they certainly wouldn’t take potshots at bodies if they saw them floating by in the Seine. These actions are all indications of the general breakdown of society and indeed Cordier indicates this at one point while acknowledging that his standards have slipped:
“Grammar gets rusty like everything else if you don’t use it. And in Africa the same goes for good and evil. What’s good? What’s evil? Nobody knows. It’s not much use here. So it gets rusty too. Must be the climate. ”
And with the general breakdown of society corrupted by colonialism, crimes become–as Cordier notes–collective and confused:
“I try to save the innocent but there aren’t any. All crimes are collective. We contribute to each other’s crimes. We all shot your brother. And maybe I did a bit more than my share. ”
Ultimately Coup de Torchon is an examination of the erosion of moral courage through the corrosive insidious presence of colonialism. Most of the film’s characters lack moral courage and no longer speak out against what is morally wrong. They all turn a blind eye to one egregious situation or another–with Cordier as an extreme example. He’s the low man on the totem pole while ironically he is the one who is supposed to be enforcing laws as they impact behavior in the French colony. Lacking moral courage, and unable to identify wrong from right, good from evil, Cordier begins his cowardly path of revenge but simply misses the point that revenge isn’t what’s needed: it’s moral courage that’s glaringly absent.