Coup de Torchon (1982): Tavernier’s French Oscar Nominee

Best Foreign Language Film Oscar
1982: Year 27
One of Bertrand Tavernier’s best and most commercial films, Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate) is based on Jim Thompson’s 1964 novel, except that the French director has shifted the tale’s locale from South America to West Africa.
Coup de Torchon
Coup de torchon.jpg

Theatrical poster
Narrative Premise:
Set in a small colonial village, the film centers on a law officer who begins to realize the political power that he possesses and acts on it by eliminating his enemies and even his wife.

Detailed Plot:

In a little town in French West Africa in 1938, Lucien Cordier (Noiret) serves as the only policeman. Unable or unwilling to impose his authority, he is treated with scorn.

In fact, his sexy wife Huguette (Stéphane Audran) has brought her lover Nono to live openly with them, claiming he is her brother.

Cordier fancies the mischievous young bride Rose (Huppert), but lets her brutal husband beat her in the street unchallenged.

The head of the timber company, Vanderbrouck, insults him for all to see, and a pair of slimy pimps, who flout the law, enjoy humiliating him.

He consults his superior Chavasson, who tells him to act more forcefully. Once back, he catches the pimps alone and, after shooting both dead, throws the corpses in the river.

When Chavasson learns of this, he rushes down to question Cordier, who says it was Chavasson who killed them. Having outwitted his boss and removed his prime tormentors, Cordier starts on the others who have made his life a misery. Vanderbrouck is dropped in a privy and Rose’s husband, like the pimps, is shot dead. When his servant brings his master’s body back to the house, Cordier kills the servant as well.

Catching Nono peeping at Anne in the shower, he beats him up in the street. Then he steals the money which his wife had been saving up in order to leave him and goes off to see Rose.

Huguette and Nono, reckoning he is going to abscond with Rose and the money, storm round to Rose’s and in self-defense Rose shoots both dead. Cordier gives her the money and tells her to get away fast.

When he confesses to Anne his malaise and crimes, she is willing to accept him, but he says he is incapable of love.

In the powerful closing shot, Cordier is seen alone under a tree, caressing his revolver.

Critical Status:

The film had 2,199,309 admissions in France and was that year’s 16th most attended film.

It received the Prix Méliès from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics and 10 César nominations but did not win any.

Laced with dark (black) humor and wit, rarely seen in American political movies, Coup de Torchon offers poignant observations about colonialism and power, both political and personal.


Philippe Noiret as Lucien Cordier
Isabelle Huppert as Rose
Jean-Pierre Marielle as Le Peron and his brother
Stéphane Audran as Huguette Cordier
Eddy Mitchell as Nono
Guy Marchand as Marcel Chavasson
Irène Skobline as Anne, the teacher
Michel Beaune as Vanderbrouck
Jean Champion as Priest
Victor Garrivier as Mercaillou
Gérard Hernandez as Leonelli
Abdoulaye Diop as Fête Nat
Daniel Langlet as Paulo
François Perrot as Colonel Tramichel
Raymond Hermantier as Blind man
Mamadou Dioumé as Mamadou
Samba Mané as Vendredi


Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Screenplay by Tavernier and Jean Aurenche, based on Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
Produced by Henri Lassa, Adolphe Viezzi
Cinematography Pierre-Wiliam Glenn
Edited by Armand Psenny
Music by Philippe Sarde
Distributed by Parafrance Films (France)
Biograph Int’l (US)

Release date: November 4, 1981

Running time: 128 minutes
Box office $16.5 million

Oscar Nominations: 1
Best Foreign-Language Picture
Oscar Awards: None
Oscar Context:
The winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar was the Spanish Entry, To Begin Again (“Volver a Empezar”) in a contest that also included: “Alsino and the Condo” from Nicaragua, “The Flight of the Eagle” from Sweden, and “Private Life” from the U.S.S.R.
France (Films de la Tour production)