1938, in a French african colony. Lucien Cordier is the cop of this village, populated with blacks and a few whites (usually racialist and lustful). He is a washout, everyone (including his wife Huguette) humiliates him. He never arrests anyone and looks at elsewhere when a dirty trick occurs. But one day, he turns into a machiavellian exterminating angel.
User Reviews: Lucien Cordier is not like most cops. He’s a main chief in a West African village where white people are the minority though, in 1938, are as racist and sexist as can be. He’s also not a very good cop, as he barely ever arrests anyone and his authority can be challenged pretty quickly, even by two scummy pimps. He’s like the pushover kid in a playground who may be a nice guy, but he’s also not quite strong enough to actually attain the authority needed to stand up against the bullies. That is until Lucien decides to fight back, in a manner that is at a calm extreme; an oxymoron, perhaps, but watching Lucien is an oxymoron in human form, but a fascinating one. He’ll kill someone, anyone, he thinks of as an enemy to him, shooting a man in the back, the pimps, or even the man who helps him dig a grave. He calmly explains some of the whys, but he never goes too ballistic. Lucien is a man of principles, but to say exactly what or why is a mystery.
This is what makes Coup de tochon, or Clean Slate, based on the Jim Thompson novel Pop 1280 (mentioned in passing as Pop. 1275 for no good reason at one point in the film), is about this man who is warm, lustful, proud, and perhaps a not entirely bright but not stupid either. And as played by Philippe Noiret he makes this film compulsively watchable. The supporting cast, such as Isabelle Hupert and Jean-Pierre Marielle, don’t fare too badly either, but it’s Noiret that elevates this to something more than director Bertrand Tavernier could have expected. He gives a performance that is intense without ever being over the top, and thoughtful while seemingly aloof in some points. He makes Lucien a guy we might like to know or talk to for a little while, until we see the veneer peel away, a fragile man who has been pushed around by his bosses and his wife (Stephan Audran) and in a position with such little power that the only way to bust loose is senseless killing. As he says, "Would a man with these eyes be a killer?"
Tavernier’s direction is lax and smooth, jagged with some documentary style and realism (it was shot all on location, and it looks it always), but there’s also a distance I felt to many of the scenes, a deliberate attempt to strip down film-noir elements to light absurdism mixed with sardonic tragedy. There are some great moments, don’t get me wrong: the scene with the film screened for the village people at night that gets ruined by a windstorm as the audio keeps playing on with the film cut off and people scrambling for cover; the first killing scene of the pimps where Lucien becomes a larger threat with every passing second leading up to a predictable but still shocking climax; an ending, which I won’t mention here.
It has such moments, but I wasn’t very moved by Coup de torchon throughout, and it’s not directed with the surest hand. And yet, I have to give it to Philippe Noiret: in any other film noir he’d be out of place, and yet here, he’s perfect.