Sunday, October 10, 2010

TV Bites: Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate)

Senegalese Grilled Fish Yassa

sorry, but the only trailer is sans subtitles

As promised, this is part two of a French post-noir double-bill. There are many comparisons to make between Shoot the Piano Player and Coup de Torchon. And one of them is that both films are superb and a joy to watch. I hope this is all not too "foreign" for some of you. I promise the next film will be a rollicking roller-coaster of fun and action.

I'm not sure which, if any, American cable network plays the film, but it is available to be rented, in an excellent Criterion edition, from Netflix and can be purchased from Amazon.


Anne: You like sounding illiterate. You're not. So why?
Lucien: Habit. Grammar gets rusty like everything else if you don't use it. And there isn't a strong demand for it in Africa. Just like for good and evil. What's good? What's evil? Nobody knows. It's not much use here. So that gets rusty too.... Must be the climate.

Much like Truffaut, director Bertrand Tavernier (who is perhaps best known for his film Round Midnight) grew up loving American B-movies, and jazz music. He, like Truffaut, has written extensively about American film, including two important books – 50 Years of American Cinema and American Friends, Interviews with Hollywood Directors. And so, like with the previous TV Bites, I’ll offer to let Tavernier speak a bit....

Coup de Torchon takes place in French Colonial West Africa (specifically in what is today Senegal) in 1938, just before World War II breaks out. (Also something to ponder: the first Chef du Cinema film Casablanca is set a little farther north of this film, in French Morocco, and a little more than two years from when this story takes place.) Lucien Cordier is police chief in the small township of Bourkassa. His job is to maintain the status quo, which is basically to keep the Africans in line and allow the Europeans to do as they please. As he himself says: "Doing nothing is my job. I'm paid for it." He is made to play the buffoon by his superiors, by the town pimps, and even by his wife (who thinks she has convinced Lucien that her lover, Nono, is her brother). Lucien at first accepts this fate, seemingly having put his self-respect in a locked box. He knows he is vastly more intelligent than his fellow men, that they are the real buffoons, but he also knows life could be far worse if he let himself feel the anguish of his self-inflicted fate. Nevertheless, his boss tells him to stand up for himself, the local priest tells him he needs to stand for law and justice - and so, almost reluctantly, but also exhausted by all the stupidity and ignorance around him, he takes them at their word and begins meting out some vigilante justice. Perhaps to bring about a "clean slate," or perhaps merely out of boredom... or perhaps, insanity.

I always wanted to be a director, ever since I was about 13 or 14 years old," Tavernier has said. "I loved Samuel Fuller, Delmer Daves and many other American directors.

In [the works of Sam] Fuller,” he's written, “the setting becomes integrated with the principal characters, who no longer notice the violence around them, for they perform it automatically with no notion of a personal act.

There is a will [in Fuller’s films] to upset archetypes, a desire to take the opposite stand of everything that surrounds him.” He could just as easily be describing Coup de Torchon.

As well, his thoughts on director John Ford, speak to this film: “Ford is also attracted to periods that are distressed, to the moment when one world disappears to make way for a new society, often at the cost of heavy sacrifices (John Wayne in The Searchers or Liberty Valance).” Coup de Torchon, is set in a “period of distress” when not just the borders and power structure of French Colonial Africa would change forever, but the whole world.

Like Truffaut, Tavernier had just made a more softer character study film, Une Semaine de Vacances, and then decided to show his darker side, delving into his love of American Noir, in his case adapting the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson.

I had just done a film which had been pensive, lyrical, quiet," he said, "and I tried to do the opposite - a film which was lyrical, but devastating, wild, angry, funny. I tried to get on film what I was finding in the books of Jim Thompson - the metaphysics and the humour, the farce and the sexual provocation and the despair - things which had already attracted people like Stanley Kubrick... who worked with Jim Thompson on two screenplays - The Killing and Paths of Glory.” (two films that may show up here at Chef du Cinema....)

He further noted. “I wanted to be faithful to Thompson, because he doesn’t leave an easy way out. It would have been very easy to include some character making a kind of liberal statement which would have helped us judge the other characters and the situation, but that would have been the worst betrayal of Thompson.

.... Thompson is not politically correct," he continued. "I think that’s what makes him alive, and fascinating. He is very much on the left, but he is not a clean-up, liberal democrat. He does not allow you any easy way to cope with the situation. He forces you to stay there with your wounds, your doubts, your fear and you have to find a way to get out of that yourself. It is something which I loved in the book, and I tried to respect it, and it was very difficult.

Again, as I discussed in Shoot the Piano Player, American audiences never took to Noir authors like David Goodis & Thompson the way the French did. "In America," said Arnold Hano, Thompson's editor at Lion Books, "if someone had heard of Jim but had not read him, they thought of him as a producer of drugstore book-rack fodder. In France, they thought of him as an American Dostoyevsky. To the French, he was the inheritor of Poe's legacy, someone who could open doors to the darkest parts of the human mind."

Some reviewers took offense to the film, feeling forced to empathize with Lucien, whom they perceived as a morally-ambiguous lead character.

"At first we identify with the underdog Lucien, the cuckolded policeman, and the audience wishes the worst for those who humiliate him," wrote Oliver C. Steck in Studies in French Cinema Journal. But then, "faced with the outcome when our desire to punish ‘the bad’ is put into action, we suddenly realize that we are not willing to bear the consequences."

But what is a Film Noir without moral ambiguity? By definition, a Noir film is not the place to be reassured that life has happy endings. Terms such as: "Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia" are usually bandied about when discussing it. Coup de Torchon throws us into a failed society in decay. Moving the setting so effortlessly from the Post-Civil War American Rural South to Pre-WWII French Colonial Africa serves as a cautionary tale whose moral is that at any given time or place, a society can become so desperate, so corrupt, so disintegrated, and so populated by people who not only treat others as less than human, but are blinded to seeing how little of their own integrity and humanity they themselves have left.

I think Emily Zants sums up Lucien best in her book on Tavernier: “[B]y the end of the film we do not know whether to fear [Lucien], respect him, or pray he is our best friend.” Perhaps all three options are in order.


"[Lucien] reveals by his behavior all the horror of the colonial system," Tavernier said.

The term “French West Africa” is used to describe colonial territories of Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger. France began establishing trading posts in these areas during 17th and 18th centuries. In addition, the French colonized much of North Africa, including Morocco and Algeria.

By the 1900's, abolition had come to French West Africa, so instead of exporting people, natural resources and industry had taken its place. But the practice of forced labor, and by the early 1930's, contract labor - similar to that in the United States in the post-Civil War years where workers would be paid with housing, chits to buy groceries from a company store, etc. - was very much the way of life. The Colonial government was happy to be able to offer businesses cheap labor. It was also thought to be good for “the natives” to be employed in this manner, to teach them how to be “civilized,” for otherwise they would simply have gone about their lives as they had for thousands of years previously.

For instance, in 1901, the French Minister of Commerce stated that: “[T]he Negro does not like work and is totally unaccustomed to the idea of saving; he does not realize that idleness keeps him in a state of absolute economic inferiority. It is therefore necessary to use the institutions by which he is ruled, in this case slavery, to improve his circumstances and afterwards gently lead him into an apprenticeship of freedom.

But by the late 1930's, when Coup de Torchon takes place, the native population was starting to rebel against this subjugation which was further accelerated during World War II. In the decades following the war, European imperialism gave way to independence for these African colonies.

To give, perhaps, a better understanding of the characters in Coup de Torchon (though with no intention of justifying or excusing them), there is a “helpful” term (almost of endearment) that has been used in West Africa from the early 1900's and can still be heard today. The term is “Wawa,” which is an acronym for “West Africa Wins Again.” It is the idea that no matter what a westerner attempts to accomplish there, he is often thwarted not just by the harsh conditions, but by a sort of “Murphy’s Law” of expecting things to work and be done in a time frame we are accustomed to in the First World. Some deal with it with laughter and learn to accept the rhythm of life there; others become so frustrated they lose it completely.

Again, Emily Zants, in her book on Tavernier, describes “Wawa” as such: “[It] was not always self destructive... It could be a way to survive as well as perish, a saving accommodation one made to the climate, the conditions and the inevitable depression Europeans feel when stuck in some colonial backwater.

In an article in The New African written in 2004, a journalist describes it similarly: “In West Africa, everything sometimes conspires to defeat you.” Time is inconsequential, machinery is always breaking down, and “[i]n your frustration, you may drink a whole bottle of whisky, gin or brandy. And you may end up by adding your personal fate to those of all the others who contributed to the notion that West Africa is the white man's grave. Even if you don't actually die but come close to losing your mind, you have reconfirmed [the existence of Wawa syndrome.]


The transatlantic exchange of foods and cuisines between the Americas and West Africa was perhaps like none other in history. Rice, peanuts, yams and black-eyed peas were brought to the Western Hemisphere. And in return, corn, okra, coconuts, pineapples, tomatoes, plantains, chile peppers, and green beans are all now staples in West Africa. Sadly, of course, a lot of that happened because of the slave trade between the continents.

Senegalese cuisine, said Pierre Thiam, owner of Le Grande Dakar, a famous Senegalese Restaurant in New York, "is a celebration of how we’ve melded the old with the new and the native with the global, and arrived at what’s arguably Africa’s most sophisticated cuisine.”

Being a coastal region, fish is one of Senegal's main protein source. Pork is almost never eaten, as most Senegalese are Muslim. Fish and meats are usually served in stews or grilled dishes. Peanuts (also known as "groundnuts") are a common ingredient in many dishes. If we can say it, one good thing the French left behind was a love for rich and elaborate desserts.

Yassa, prepared typically with either chicken or fish, is one of the most popular dishes of Senegal, but can also be found in variations throughout West Africa.

Senegalese Grilled Fish Yassa
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

serves 4

2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 - 1 habanero chile, seeded & minced
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup lemon or lime juice
4 tablespoons dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons white or rice vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon cayenne or paprika
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper, to taste

4 6-ounce firm fish fillets - tilapia, perch, sea bream, or salmon
4 medium sweet onions, cut into thin rings
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/3 cup water
parsley for garnish, minced

Wash fish under water and dry with paper towels.

Mix marinade ingredients together in non-reactive sealable container. Add fish. Add onions. Seal & shake. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Remove fish from marinade (hold in fridge until ready to cook). Remove onions from marinade with slotted spoon. Reserve marinade.

Preheat grill, broiler, or grill pan.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to large saucepan. When hot, add onions and cook, covered on medium heat, occasionally stirring, until they start caramelizing. Add marinade and stir. Add water, bring to boil, lower heat to simmer and reduce slightly. Stir occasionally. Then hold at low temperature.

Cook fish on grill or grill pan or in broiler till just nearly done (about 4 minutes per side). Remove fish and set over marinade & onions to finish cooking, raising pan to medium heat.

To serve remove fish gently so it won't break up, smother with sauce & onions (or lay fish on top). Sprinkle with parsley. Accompany with white or jasmine rice.

NOTE: If using whole fish: cut several slits, diagonally, into the fish, this will help with the marinating. Preferably de-bone.

Criterion's Coup de Torchon Page
Bertrand Tavernier Bio @ NY Times
1999 Interview with Tavernier
Article on Jim Thompson @ Wall St. Journal
Jim Thompson's Lost Hollywood Years @ Moviemaker Magazine
Jim Thompson Bio
Wiki Senegalese Cuisine Page

Coup de Torchon DVD, Criterion Edition
Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson
50 Years of American Cinema, by Bertrand Tavernier (in French)
American Friends, interviews with Hollywood directors, by Bertrand Tavernier (in French)
Bertrand Tavernier: fractured narrative and bourgeois values, by Emily Zants
Bertrand Tavernier: The Film-maker of Lyon, by Stephen Hay
The Film Noir Encyclopedia, by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward
Yolele! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal, by Pierre Thiam

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