Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is the overweight, lazy, unshaven chief of police in Bourkassa, Senegal. It's 1938, and this French colony is a backwater of dust, flies and dysentery. Cordier can't talk his wife, Huguette (Stephane Audran), into sharing his bed, but she is very solicitous of her "brother" who lives with them. He takes bribes from two pimps who humiliate him in public. He's the butt of jokes among his superiors. He has hot eyes for Rose Marcaillou (Isabelle Huppert), who is a sexy young woman with a brute of a husband. Cordier willingly puts off doing almost anything, including making arrests. He's a man easy to get impatient with and easy to push around.
"You never arrest anybody," the local priest tells him one day. "You've got to show folks you're brave, honest and hard working."
"I can't," Cordier says.
"Because I'm not brave, honest and hardworking."
And now, those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome should stop reading, because the spoilers begin.
One night, after making the two pimps sing a bawdy song on the banks of the river, Cordier shoots both of them and pushes their bodies into the current.
Coup de Torchon is a black comedy so dark you'll need to look carefully; so elegant you'll smile at Cordier's improvisations; so clever you may consider doing a few murders of your own. The dialogue is sharp and amusing. The background score is an energetic mix of Thirties popular themes. The end of the movie is a sort of sour, bittersweet mixture that leaves an interesting taste in the mouth.
Cordier decides to get rid of Rose's husband, which he does with a shotgun blast. As the man lies dying, Cordier walks over and kicks him hard several times.
"I know kicking a dead man isn't very nice," Cordier tells Marcaillou, kicking him again, "but first, I wanted to and second, there's no risk involved." Later, after enjoying the enthusiastic delights of Rose, she tells him, "Having you is an honor...a man who's killed my husband for love." "I was just getting rid of trash," Cordier replies. "The trash also happened to be your husband, so I killed two birds with one stone."
No one in the dusty backwater of Bourkassa would ever think Cordier guilty of being a murderer, much less a serial murderer. He manages to take care of a few more and gradually sees himself as a sort of cleanser of humanity. "I just help to reveal (people's) true nature. It's a dirty job, Rose," he tells his lover, "and you might very well say I deserve all the dirty pleasure I get out of it."
We leave Cordier by himself, still the police chief of Bourkassa, on the brink of WWII. He looks at people with sad eyes, caught in his own lethal looniness. "I'm a policeman...I'm Jesus Christ in person, sent here with a load of crosses bigger than the next. I try to save the innocent, but there aren't any."
Philippe Noiret, one of the world's great actors, is superb as Cordier. In his career he played peasants and princes, fools and wise men. He died in 2006, and was never better than here. Isabelle Huppert was 28 when she made this movie, and looks 18. She is willful, sly, funny and sexy. The Criterion DVD picture and audio are in great shape. Extras include an interview with Bertrand Tavernier, the director.