My favorite fiction book of all time is Albert Camus's The Stranger. This is partially because I love Camus's style, but mainly because I am fascinated by his narrator and invigorated by his conclusions. "For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world," Camus writes in the book's final pages. It's a powerful concept that can be read as either nihilistic or rigidly moralist (or at least humanist). Life is almost literally what you make of it.
I bring up The Stranger because Coup de Torchon lends itself so well to this philosophy. Though the book upon which the film was based (Pop. 1280 by pulp hero Jim Thompson) was actually written before The Stranger, Tavernier's film is relocated to French-occupied West Africa pre-WWII, and has been infused with a rich steeping of existentialism. The film's protagonist, Lucien, is the police chief of a small backwater town, and is made to be the butt of all jokes (in one case, literally, as his superior kicks him in the ass to demonstrate how Lucien should handle some pimps who have made it their duty to humiliate him). Lucien dutifully plays the part, until one day he decides to begin killing off all of the horrible people in his town.
Pop. 1280 was written in first person, which forces the viewer to be sympathetic to the protagonist's actions. This is difficult to achieve in film, especially without first-person narration (an overused device if there ever was one - most modern films that use it could eliminate it from the final cut and nothing would be different). Tavernier doesn't quite elicit sympathy for his Lucien - I'm not even sure he (or Lucien himself, for that matter) really wants it - but he is able to let his protagonist's world take form in an increasingly claustrophobic way. By the time Lucien's really dastardly deeds are done, it's hard to hold anyone accountable for anything in this morally bankrupt environment. Even though the film is not being presented from Lucien's perspective, it's as if Lucien himself had made the film.
This is why the film seems so darkly funny. We don't cringe as bodies pile up because people are discharged with such a routine shrug of violence and revenge. This tone isn't designed to entertain, as it was so perfectly in a film like Kind Hearts and Coronets, but instead to illuminate our uncomfortable relationship with our own morality and mortality. The fact that we feel nothing is meant to make us feel uncomfortable.
And yet the film seems to imply these people are already dead. This final moment of French imperialism stands in for any instance of sustained societal wrongs, when absurdity and morally-corrupt rebellion seems like the only option (the less complicated but still admirable Stander comes to mind). The idea that prejudice - most frequently racism or sexism - destroys the perpetrator as much as if not more than the victim is not a new concept, and wasn't even when Coup de Torchon was made. But the film introduces this concept in such a non-judgmental way that its real sentiments might not be entirely clear.
I read a couple of contemporary reviews of the film after watching it that were negative. The core takeaway seems to be the film's emptiness, a lack of soul that might hold it together as its world crumbles around the viewer. This seems to me to be precisely the point of the film, and what ties it to The Stranger in such a fascinating way. Lucien, I think, is meant to be all of us and none of us. Put into such a hateful, broken society in a position devoid of power or the ability to make a difference, we want to believe we would be like him almost as much as we fear we could become him. We hope for the camera to judge him so we do not have to. Instead, all we get is a gentle indifference.