COUP DE TORCHON

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Given absolute power and left to one’s own devices, the common assumption is that corruption would ensue. Perhaps in those individuals with either ambition to match their authority or a lack of imagination, but the human mind is considerably more complex. Given ultimate license, a person could become a homicidal dictator, an altruist able to touch millions of lives, or something else entirely. Lucius Cincinnatus is one oft-cited example of unfed ambition; given absolute power, he retired his office when a threat to Rome had been neutralized – twice. Examples of men or women who have (in theory) limitless power go beyond heads of state; one need only find wealthy oligarchs, prison wardens, or most frighteningly, lawmen of rural towns. Provoke the ire of a badge in a sparsely populated region in Louisiana, and you can disappear forever with no recourse. Pop 1280 was written with this in mind, as a rural sheriff decided to wield his power for the first time. Bertrand Tavernier has mastered the cinematic exploration of human nature, treading upon that uneasy ground negotiated sublimely by Kurosawa and Renoir; there is no greater living director who could have adapted Pop 1280 into a film. The translation involved the improbable move of the story from the rural southern United States to French West Africa, giving the work a more insidious colonial flavor. Guided by Tavernier’s flawless touch and headed by the immortal Phillipe Noiret, Coup De Torchon became one of the greatest films ever made about the darker side of human nature. The trick was that the man who held absolute power initially had no interest in using it; but this changed abruptly for reasons nobody around him understood. You see, Lucien Cordier (Noiret) was a philosopher.

Lucien was paid well for his position, and even better for his reluctance to actually use his authority. He would remark, with a tinge of pride, that he never made a single arrest. The peace was kept, but more as a function of poverty and the iron fist of the French occupation than any sense of justice. Criminals openly operated with a minimal tithe to Lucien, and they felt entitled to publicly humiliate him as well. After all, anyone who refused to strike back despite being the law must be retarded. His wife cheated on him – with a man who lived under their roof (you read that correctly). The business interests of this tiny community had no respect for him whatsoever, going so far as to erect the public shitter right outside his house/office. So why was Lucien such a rube? Well, he lacked the ambition to acquire more power over the community, or perhaps was bereft of the imagination required to envision what was within his reach. Most importantly, he was content enough. Rather than being angered at the injustice that surrounded him, he seemed to feel that this was the ideal. Humanity had sunk to its proper level. Travel to rural Africa today and you will be likely to reach a similar conclusion. This is hardly an apocalyptic view; people die like flies but also multiply profligately, politicians are so corrupt they are parodies of themselves, and there is little effort amongst the populace of any nation to change circumstances. The HIV pandemic has reached a steady state in southern Africa, not because the spread has been halted, but because for every death there is a new infection, and only massive public campaigns inspire the slightest interest in condom use. And the human species continues limping along. Meanwhile, Lucien takes a passive role as the witness, his answer for this and any woe being a shrug and measured acceptance. Though you can see why he was mistaken for a simpleton, truth be told this is the view held by the vast majority of our planet. The problems that complicate our world are simultaneously of our own creation and beyond our control – a machine set in motion once humanity reached a population size of critical mass. Though most of us live in perpetual distraction to avoid coming to terms with this, Lucien seems to understand this. Despite his authority, he sees no recourse. Initially in our story, he saw no role in changing the direction of a violent place, sure to worsen as the world was heading into the second World War. As a French colony, the powerless locals were sure to be caught up in the draft on behalf of the indifferent French colonials.

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This manner of thinking changes abruptly (it is fortunate that the first person narration of the novel was shed for this reason). The audience is left to form its own conclusions as to why. Lucien discusses the increasing abuse heaped upon him by the local criminals with the regional magistrate. The official responds by kicking him literally, and as it turns out, figuratively, in the ass. This is a turning point for our deceptively simple protagonist, and he returns to his fiefdom to bring the pain. Numerous reviews of Coup de Torchon gets this turn of events entirely wrong by assuming that the man has gone insane. At no time does he appear to be barking; he is calm and thoughtful, and nary an unreasonable word is uttered for the duration. Initially he appears to go after his direct tormentors. This is either a gesture of vengeance, or perhaps just dealing with the familiar first. There are other murders that appear to benefit him directly. Lucien only explains his motives obliquely, for example to his lover after her husband is dispatched:

Rose: Having you is an honor. Killing my husband for love.
Lucien Cordier: No, I was just getting rid of trash. The trash also happened to be your husband.
Rose: There’s a lot of trash around.
Lucien Cordier: There’ll be less and less. Had to start somewhere.

The first murders are by his own hand – as time passes, the effort necessary to shed blood dwindles to simply moving people into the right place. Lucien’s attitude is benign – he is playing chess. That august game is to some extent about a balance of attack and defense, but the masters exhibit an understanding of patterns; you place the pieces in a certain alignment, and opportunities become more likely. And so our protagonist does the same, giving the characters of the town the opportunity to manifest their true nature. As the death toll mounts, it becomes clear that Lucien is perfectly sane – he is most capable of sending a message. And what is that message? It depends upon your views on whether the basic human impulse is for civic order and benevolent action or parasitic spoiling of one’s neighbor on the way to consuming all that is possible. Noiret’s bon mots say everything and nothing about what drives this apparent cleansing of the town.

“Schoolteacher is a fine profession. Thanks to you, black children will be able to read their daddy’s name on French war memorials.”

The human species is nothing more than an animal, every bit as evolved as the liver fluke or black rat. These animals and humans developed to occupy a niche in a difficult and changing landscape, no one more advanced than the other. There is nothing in our DNA that requires us to do anything beyond organizing into groups and killing each other. What makes us human is the artifice of society – the arbitrary and somewhat unnatural decision to stabilize our interactions so that we can amass intellect and property. This translated into accumulated knowledge, human rights, gender equality, law and order, and those other rarefied parts of society that we take for granted as integral to our species. Essential to humanity, but not to the human. Lucien discovered this in a rural part of Africa, similar to any rural area in the world far removed from populations with intellectual rigor and a tradition of mutual understanding. On the edges of society you find that war, poverty, and social instability remove this subtle but significant protective layer. The extraordinary population pressure in Rwanda, the ignorance so rife in the Congo, religious intolerance in the middle east removes what little there is in humans that allows humanity to exist. Once that occurs, the animal within does what it does best.

“At first murder 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.”

Inspector Cordier understands this indelicate aspect of human nature, and becomes more than an actor – he becomes the author. In the cryptic final shot, he is at a crossroads with where he must go with this philosophical turn. The trash has been taken out… that leaves only the innocent to attack. But the idea of innocent people in a fundamentally unjust and inhuman society is a fallacy. Or so he seems to think. After all, he appears to be committing a heinous act, no less detestable than his minor efforts toward driving his fellow townsfolk to murder. It would be more civilized to simply live in a wealthy nation and have a cognitive disconnect with devastating actions taken on your behalf, I suppose. The end effect is the same – Lucien is just eliminating the middleman. This is what we really are.

This would seem to be a hateful and nihilistic belief system, but bear in mind that Tavernier is nothing if not one of cinema’s great humanists. The upshot is that humanity is not to be taken for granted – it must be renewed constantly or it dissolves like sand castles in the surf. One cannot claim to be what we think of as human just by being of the species – this depends on our actions moment by moment. Certainly, Noiret’s character has a more pessimistic view of what people will do – he is deterministic. This is based upon his observations, and there is little to counter his impression. From my point of view, humanity is our conscious act rather than an inherited trait, and so is under our control. Perhaps you will have a different view, but if you spend any time working in distressed areas of the world (including your own community) you are pushed to consider what makes us human, and where human nature ends. Coup de Torchon does not appear to answer questions as much as ask them, leading the audience down darkened halls that stretch beyond sight. Consider this an uncomfortable but essential stroll that is fine entertainment as well.

About Alex K.

Alex is an actual medical doctor. Really. At a hospital and everything. We don’t know what he’s doing here, but he writes good reviews.