Clean Slate (1981)

This acidic, darkly comic French neo-western adapted from Jim Thompson’s Texas-set novel, but brilliantly transposed to West Africa, is one of Tavernier’s greatest accomplishments.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #2,456

Dir. Bertrand Tavernier
1981 | France | Drama/Crime/Comedy | 129 mins | 1.66:1 | French & English
NC16 (passed clean) for violence, some nudity and sexual references

Cast: Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Stephane Audran
Plot: A pathetic police chief, humiliated by everyone around him, suddenly wants a clean slate in life – and resorts to drastic means to do so.
Awards: Nom. for Best Foreign Language Film (Oscars)
Distributor: Studiocanal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Humiliation & Redemption; Violence & Morality
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

From the jazzy, marching band-style music in the opening passages, one could already sense a great film in the making.  It’s acerbic and scathing, though a product of its time.  It has so many racist characters that you’ll lose count of the number of times they say the N-word. 

Directed and co-written by Bertrand Tavernier, who emerged more than 15 years after the New Wave generation of the ‘60s as a key French filmmaker, Clean Slate is one of his greatest accomplishments, and might just be his finest work. 

A fresh, invigorating, and most of all, uncompromising entry into French cinema of the ‘80s, Tavernier threw audiences a curveball of a film with this neo-western about a jaded and oft-humiliated police chief who revels in inaction. 

Adapted from Jim Thompson’s Texas-set novel, ‘Pop. 1280’, but brilliantly transposed to West Africa and shot in Senegal, Clean Slate immerses us into a colonialist world of poverty and crime. 

“I do things without thinking… I never plan ahead.”

Philippe Noiret is outstanding as Lucien, the pathetic police chief in question who wouldn’t intervene in a streetfight, or arrest anyone, including the gangsters who commit vices openly. 

He spends his time eating, sleeping and seducing women, such as Rose (a stunning young Isabelle Huppert), who wants to be rid of her abusive husband. 

Darkly comic and at times offensive in its blatant discrimination of Africans, Clean Slate is a delight to experience inasmuch as it is unpredictable yet so sure of itself.  

The confidence oozing out of every frame, line of dialogue, and action is intoxicating, to say the least—it’s difficult to look away even as it straddles into scenarios that are tests of human morality.  If you haven’t yet seen a film by Tavernier, this is a fantastic place to start.

Grade: A



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