Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon has no moral center. The main character, the lone police officer of a small, colonial Senegalese town, is craven, prone to childish pranks, from salting someone’s tea to weakening the floorboards of an outhouse so that the unlucky occupant falls through. He endures humiliations with a wan smile, and when he’s finally had his fill, he metes out capricious punishment, killing the guilty and innocent alike. He draws others into his depravity, making his superior officer a patsy and inducing a schoolteacher to tell her class that his chalk-written confession on the blackboard is Le Marseillaise. Characters twice proclaim—once during an eclipse and again during a sandstorm—the arrival of Judgment Day, but no such judgment comes. Instead, life continues unabated in the town, the painted walls of houses both sun-baked and blinding.  Tavernier’s camerawork itself resists implying a moral center. He avoids, as he describes, “the principle of symmetry, with the hero in the center.” Instead, he creates, with his steadicam shots, “an image that [has] no center, that [keeps] shifting… It’s the physical equivalent of earth that isn’t solid.”

This is the creation of colonialism, Tavernier suggests—this lawless land. “The atmosphere of violence, horror, hypocrisy doesn’t leave you anything to hold on to,” he says. “But it’s not exactly a desperate vision of the world. Nor is it the opposite. You simply don’t know.”

*

I was raised Vietnamese Buddhist, which carries syncretic traces of Confucian ancestor worship. My parents themselves were light Buddhists, which meant that I went to temple only on major holidays:  New Year’s, smoky with sulfurous firecrackers and jangled with Dragon Dances; the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, with paper lanterns and me trading my salty yolked slice of mooncake to my father for his yolk-free one; and the Veneration of the Ancestors, for which one pinned a red rose to his lapel if his parents were alive and a white one if the parents had passed on. At temple, black-and-white portraits of the deceased were lined up on either side of the altar; each time I attended, I looked for my grandparents there. At the center of the altar was a large gilt Buddha, seated in the heroic position, hands in the ‘calling earth to witness’ mudra. The Buddha had radiant, neon halo. Buddhism doesn’t have strict tenets, such as the Ten Commandments, but instead suggests the Eightfold Path. I would have learned these paths, but the service was conducted in Vietnamese, which I understood only fleetingly, and I mouthed my way through sutras transliterated from Sanskrit into monosyllabic Vietnamese and read to the rhythm of a tapped woodblock. At the gong, I knew to bow, though I never figured out which gongs meant bow once and which meant three times.

Thus, my moral education consisted primarily of ‘Goofus and Gallant’ cartoons in Highlights for Children, read once every six months while waiting in the dentist’s office. I like to think I didn’t turn out too badly.

Advertisements