8.5/10 (Very Good)
Oscar Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film, 10 Caesar Award (French Oscar) nominations
It’s taken me a while to gather the courage to write this review for Coup de Torchon (Blank Slate), directed by the famed French director, Bertrand Tavernier. In short, because I’m not sure why I was so enthralled with this film. Usually, I utter definitive opinions — I have none (well, perhaps a few). Instead, this review shall consist of a desperate attempt to justify my perhaps inflated rating. But, I love this film — definitely one of my all time favorites (top ten?). If you’re in the mood for a nihilistic, dark yet oddly comedic, and somewhat ambiguous experience then this is the film for you.
What strikes you first is the film’s location — the single undeniable masterstroke of the work — but again, I’m not sure why. Bertrand Tavernier adapted the 60s pulp novel, Pop. 1280 which takes place in around 1910 in West Texas and transposed it to French Senegal around 1930. This shift introduces a backdrop of a multi-racial (and racially conflicted) French colony. Here I’m uncertain why Tavernier chose Senegal since the discussion of the French treatment of its colonies (and various peoples within its Empire) isn’t the film’s central focus. Nor does it appear that French Senegal is picked simply because it’s an exotic backdrop for some adventuresome action. Firstly, because the action isn’t adventuresome but rather cold-blooded and disturbed and entirely between the French colonists. Secondly, because the Senegal depicted is an ultra-realistic small dusty unimportant town (filmed on location in Senegal) with local boys as extras replete with various parasitic infections (hopefully the film crew helped the boy — it definitely looked real).
Then how does the location work? Good question. I wish I knew more about the French treatment of their colonies besides their dismal occupation of Algeria (fertile ground for numerous films of the French New Wave movement)… If race issues are in the background and Senegal is a “non-exoticized” backdrop without Indiana Jones-esque “hacking some blood thirsty natives” type action then what do we have?
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Lucien Cordier (magnificently played by a frequent Tavernier collaborator, Philippe Noiret) is the police chief in the small Senegalese town of Bourkassa. Initially, he’s a nice guy and complete wimp. His wife has convinced him that her “brother” (her lover) should live in their house and the various sordid elements of the town (pimps and the like) push Cordier around — even to the point of strategically placing the town outhouse outside Cordier’s window. Cordier arrests no one and never uses his gun or flaunts his authority.
The entire town mocks him. Cordier takes bribes from the pimps and allows Rose (a delightfully vivacious Isabelle Huppert) to be beaten in the middle of the town by her husband. Cordier believes he’s been selected for the job so that other French colonists can take advantage of the native inhabitants of the region. What’s so strange is we’re COMPLETELY supportive of Cordier — we emphasize with his struggles, we hate his enemies, we revel in his happiness when he consoles Rose. How wrong we are! Eventually after a strange incident where some fellow police officers in another town ridicule him and tell him he must stand up for himself, Cordier is transformed into a vindictive man who utilizes his previous easily bullied persona to get away with his dark acts. He uses Rose in his schemes and proceeds to establish a blank slate by killing his enemies.
The acting is superb. The chemistry between the vibrant Isabelle Huppert (now my second favorite French actress after Delphine Seyrig) and the dopey, seldom smiling, Philippe Noiret is truly wonderful. The bizarre tapestry of location, acting, plot, and black humor is an infectious (if somewhat frustrating) mix. The drastic turn in Cordier’s character is somewhat hard to understand. I suspect many viewers will be frustrated with the dirty trick that Tavernier plays — we emphasize with Noiret, but beneath his friendly exterior is something quite horrifying. Noiret pulls off Cordier’s character with astounding ease. I’m unsure Tavernier’s purpose in creating such an unusual film. Nor am I sure exactly sure about its genre — it’s certainly not comedy as it’s occasionally listed — drama?
Some might find that the black comedy element detracts from the seriousness of the plot. Others might find that the seriousness of the plot is too implausible and poorly explained. I enjoy the precarious balance (unbalance?) Tavernier employs. All in all, it’s a heady (controversial, frustrating, layered, and morally confused brew) to be savored. I must track down more Tavernier films — especially ones with Noiret!