At Alliance Française on Fridays at 8 pm
At Alliance Française on Friday, October 17: Coup de torchon / Clean Up / Clean Slate (1981) by Bertrand Tavernier – 128 mins – France, Comedy/ Crime/ Drama. English subtitles. Generally favorable reviews: 72 out of 100.
With Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Stéphane Audran.
“A bid for survival” located in Bourkassa, a small village in French Eastern Africa, Lucien is a policeman embroiled in a series of murders. Ridiculed by his fellow whites, he is going to take revenge… in his own way.
– Alliance description
Roger Ebert / April 6, 1983:
Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon is a cruel intellectual joke played on its characters -- who endure boredom, self-contempt, hate, dust, flies, and sometimes even death without being allowed to know they're only part of an existential parable. Tavernier's film is about poor white trash in Africa in 1938, and there are times when they seem almost real -- but they're never allowed the pulse or the stubborn indomitability of their slovenly cousins, William Faulkner's Snopes family.
The movie is set in a small Senegalese village, on the eve of World War II. Tavernier shot on the actual location, and he achieves an absolutely convincing reality, right down to the reddish mud that has been splashed by the rain onto the yellowing stucco walls of the village sheds. His village is populated by lazy, corrupt French colonials, and by a supporting cast of Africans who drift through the background, unconcerned with the lives of the whites except when they have the misfortune to incur their wrath.
Lucien Cordier is the police chief here. Played by Philippe Noiret, he is a shambling, sloppy bureaucrat who keeps his intelligence well hidden. He holds the crushing boredom of his life somewhat at bay by practical jokes (like dumping a provincial officer through the outhouse floor) and sexual confusion (while Cordier's wife caresses the man who may or may not be her brother, Cordier has an affair with the local schoolteacher). All the colonials in this village have long since lost all self-respect, and none more than Cordier, who is openly taunted even by the village pimps.
One day, Cordier quite simply decides to start killing his enemies. He wants to start over with a clean slate (the title's English translation). He shoots the pimps, spreads false rumors about their fate, and then begins to kill, or arrange the deaths of those who offend him. On those rare occasions when he talks about what he has done, he strays precariously close to the hero of Albert Camus' "The Stranger," who found killing to be an assertion of his own existence. This story, which sounds so absorbing, is told by Tavernier in such a strange, distancing way that there's hardly a moment when we really believe we're observing plausible human beings. It's all just the manipulation of events and ideas.
Tavernier is one of the very best of the new French directors, and when he does choose to observe the daily lives of deeply felt characters (as in his movies The Clockmaker and A Week's Vacation), we feel an immediate empathy. But Coup de Torchon left me cold, unmoved, and uninvolved. All I could find to admire was the craftsmanship.
That was after two viewings. I saw the film first at last November's Chicago Film Festival, and was not quite sure I had really engaged with the film. Was I missing something? I saw it again recently and had the same strange feeling that the events on the screen, even though they were so firmly grounded in a real location, were insubstantial. Despite the dust, despite the slow-moving muddy river, despite the dirty housedresses and the 5 o'clock shadow and the yawns and sudden fights and bawdy practical jokes, this movie never quite breathes. It's an exercise. You can admire an exercise, but it's hard to really care about one.
Coup de torchon plays like the proverbial auto wreck in slow motion - it's ugly, it's something you'd rather not know about, but you can't take your eyes off of it. The cynicism is neither cheap nor exploitative but a compelling world view that makes you think. Lucien Cordier is a Harry Lime without good looks, charisma, or even ambition, a soulless killer in a Godless world.
This is a deceptively well-made thriller: most of the scenes seem wilted with the heat and boredom of the tropics, yet the story moves along at a brisk pace until you find you can't look away. Phillipe Noiret is simply excellent as Lucien, and the well-known actresses Audran and Huppert are very credible as the low women in his low-life. In most crime dramas, the killer keeps killing because it's a requirement of a genre completely given over to exploitation; here you really get the feeling that Lucien is himself astounded at the utter lack of justice or retribution in the world. His reaction to his own crimes is both amusement and despair.
A unique and superior murder thriller, with a truly exotic location and some of the most believable lowlife characters ever to sleaze-up a film noir.
At Alliance Française on Friday, October 24: Madame Bovary (1991) by Claude Chabrol – 140 mins – France, Drama. English subtitles. Generally favorable reviews: 68 out of 100.
With Isabelle Huppert, Jean Yanne, Christophe Malavoy.
A famous Gustave Flaubert novel adapted yet again to the silver screen by Chabrol after Renoir, 1933, Minnelli, 1949. Emma is a country girl who has married out of gratitude a doctor who has cured her father. Romantic and dreaming of luxury, she becomes quickly bored avec the monotony of their lives. Having met a dashing but penniless aristocrat, she becomes his mistress…
– Alliance description
Claude Chabrol's lifelong interest in the psychological lives of women finds a perfect vehicle in Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel, Madame Bovary. Isabelle Hupert, Chabrol's frequent collaborator and muse, brings a detached and icy intensity to her portrayal of Emma, an ambitious farmer's daughter suffocated by her own life. When Emma meets meek country doctor Charles Bovary (Jean-François Balmer), she sees a ticket out of her meager existence. However, the lure of marriage and motherhood is short-lived, and soon Emma senses a new set of ever-encroaching snares and limits preventing her from fulfilling the fanciful destiny she constructs for herself out of her own desires and the romance novels that fuel them. When her outlets of novels and the odd ball at the local château cease to satisfy Emma's ravenous hunger for passion and luxury, she takes matters into her own hands, embarking on a double life of domesticity and adultery. Chabrol injects the film with his patented dark humor while remaining faithful to Flaubert's stinging depiction of the narrow world of 19th-century provincial life and its clash with female desires as fleshed out by the tragic figure of Huppert's immensely complicated but very real Emma.
– Rotten Tomatoes
At Alliance Française on Friday, October 31: Les Soeurs fâchées / Me and My Sister (2004) by Alexandra Leclère – 93 mins – France, Comedy/ Drama. English subtitles.
With Catherine Frot, Isabelle Huppert, François Berléand.
Louise, younger sister, natural and straightforward, lives in province; Martine, older sister, beautiful and aloof, lives in the Parisian upper middle class. Louise has written a novel. On Monday she will go for an appointment with a publisher in Paris, which may change her life. She comes to live with Martine for three days. During three days, Louise and her obvious happiness exasperate Martine and set her life in glares...
– Alliance description