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I'.m not sure what I think about this..
on March 7, 2009
I'm paraphrasing the lines of the hero when he confesses that he has thought and reflected and pondered about his life situation and after sleepless nights and trying to wrap his mind around it, he finally decides that he just doesn't know what the f.... to do. This is how I felt after seeing this film. I lay awake in bed, trying to wrap my mind around it, to make some sense of it and finally decided that I couldn't, and went to sleep.
Tonight I decided to read some of the reviews of Jim Thompson's book on which this film is based, hoping to get some insight into what the film was trying to do and whether or not it succeeded. I'm sure that if I read the novel I'd be better equipped to make a judgment but frankly the film didn't interest me enough to get the book.
From what I can draw, however, it seems to me that a very rough but smart and funny noir novel that was set in Oklahoma has been transposed into French West Africa, and not entirely successfully. I don't think it's the fault of the locale switch, though. To me it's the vision of the the director, Bertrand Tavernier. Is he making a hard-nose noir thriller or a charming character study? Is he going for cold-blooded or warmth? Part of the problem may be that it's shot very beautifully in color which gives it a lot of warmth.
My best guess is that the main mistake is in the the casting of the wonderful Phillippe Noiret as the protagonist. Noiret is a big, teddy bear of a guy whom I'd hire as a Santa Claus or invite over to baby sit my grandchildren. He seems so inherently sweet that his "conversion" from meek, pushed-around, good-hearted, small town sherrif who can't bear to actually put people in jail, to cold-hearted murderer just isn't convincing. I can imagine that, in the novel, there's no such problem and perhaps if another actor were playing the role, it would work better for me. (I had no problem following Matt Damon down his road to destruction, in The Amazing Mr. Ripley....another film in which we get so involved in the character of the murderer that we want him to go free.)
In the first half of the film we see the sherrif (Noiret) not only being passive and a push-over, but genuinely kind. He helps the schoolteacher remove a speck from the eye of one of her Black pupils and later, he pays for admittance to the movies for a group of her pupils. He is kind to his Black servant, unlike the rest of the French White colonists. The way the film shows him (I don't know how it's done in the novel), his unwillingness to punish people doesn't seem to be a matter of laziness as much as a genuine aversion to causing harm. He seems to be a genuinely kind man and that kind of kindness comes from strengh, not weakness.
So, when he changes his tune and starts shooting people...well I have to wonder why, exactly. At first I cheered him on because his targets were genuinelly sleazy characters. But then, when he shot the Black servant I really had to scratch my head in wonder. Was he really a repressed rageaholic all along who was just afraid of showing it? This may be more analysis than one wants to undertake, but in order for the film to make sense, one has to have a sense of the man's basic character. There is so much talk at the end from the guy, trying to explain himself, that it seems that the film maker is at least trying to address the problem. And he doesn't do a good job of it, IMHO.
Some reviewers here simply state that the guy went insane but that doesn't seem right to me, either.
In the final analysis I can only say that the film seems to have lost something in translation. Noiret seems like someone's favorite old uncle who spends his time making wine in the south of France. I'd like to send him back to Provence and leave the gangster films to the real bad guys. (and leave Isabel Huppert in Africa to stand trial) I think it's the inconsistency of the vision of the director that makes the film fail to genuinely satisfy. But it's clever, visually appealing, and watching Noiret is always a pleasure.