At the moment Tavernier movies are at a premium, but in Cinema Heaven and probably in a couple of years when the passion for box sets catches up with him, we'll be able to see this cinema master for what he is worth, which is a lot.
It has to be said that "Coup de Torchon" is not Tavernier at his best - nowhere near as good as "Life and Nothing But" Life and Nothing But [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC
], Daddy Nostalgie Daddy Nostalgia [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC
], or A Sunday in the Country, his homage to Jean Renoir A Sunday in the Country ( Un dimanche à la campagne ) [ English subtitles ] [DVD
]. But it shows why Tavernier is always worth watching, not least because he is a student and lover of literature and cinema, and the cinema he loves is about doubt, ambiguity and harsh truths.
The plot is simply summed up. The worm turns. The local cop, Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is married to a cold wife (Stephane Audran) and lives in a menage a trois with his brother-in-law, Nono, who is knocking his sister off (if indeed she is his sister). With me so far? We are in French West Africa, what is now called Mauritania, on the Atlantic coast on the edge of the Sahara. The locals are Black muslims. It is 1938, the fag end of colonialism. Among the whites there is Rose (Isabelle Huppert), victim of a sadist husband, that Lucien is crazy about. There are pimps, and superiors, and representatives of local companies, and all of them piss on lazy, tolerant, cowardly Lucien. Until the worm turns. Taking a cue from his superior officer, he works his revenge on everyone in the town who has done him down in the first place.
You start by rooting for him. You expecially like his way of making the punishment fit the crime. But it - as the saying goes - gets out of hand as he starts to make others do his dirty work for him. He is not a monster, but he is caught in the monstrosities of colonialism and racism, and he drags others down with him, including the audience.
I won't give away the plot any more, except to say that the movie stops rather than ends, which is its main weakness. I also have to admit that it never quite finds the form to express what it wants to say, with the result that at 125 minutes it feels more like 150. But where it is absolutely brilliant is on racism; I don't think I've ever seen a film which so brutally expresses the view that black people are sub-human, or encapsulates the response where we go along with vile views for the sake of an easy life, protesting mildly, liberally and ineffectually. It's a very uncomfortable experience. American cinema would show white villains beating black victims, but it would not allow them to argue why negroes didn't have souls, and it would not allow the hero to do anything but shoot them.
There is one scene, a long scene, which is the core of Tavernier's vision. The body of one of the people killed turns up and is brought back on a cart by a black boy to Lucien's house. The black boy knows too much and has to die, but before he dies, there is a long and profound dialogue, severe and revolutionary. "Why are you killing me?" asks the boy. "I always liked you. I trusted you." "That's where you made your mistake. You trusted a white man. You compromised yourself, you became one of them," replies Lucien. White men, the source of corruption, the original sin which infects everyone, so that any kind of trust is a fatal mistake. None of us deserves to live, we are all complicit.
This is film noir on a global scale, but filmed in the kind of washed-out colour which goes with infection and siroccos.
Many directors have one actor who embodies their ideal protagonist. Not necessarily an alter ego, but a typical character. De Nero and Scorsese, Depp and Tim Burton, Cary Grant and Hitchcock. Tavernier's is Philippe Noiret. A soft face, open to luxury and temptation, but fundamentally decent, a complacent face, but one with hard eyes, so you don't quite know where it will go when the complacency is shaken. Noiret here has to go a helluva distance. Maybe too far, because the ending doesn't convince.
But anyone who loves Graham Greene will like this movie.