Lambert drinks. He works the night shift as a pompiste at a 24/7 petrol station in a quartier called Belleville in the northeast of Paris. Ensconced in the petrol station’s tiny office, Lambert sits alone and drinks. On his way home from work in the morning, he stops by a bar and drinks. Arriving home, he drinks some more. Falling into bed in a drunken stupor, he sleeps, numb from the alcohol and indifferent to the daylight. When night falls, the cycle begins again.
He’s nocturnal. In his night-time transient world, the customers come and go, just passing through. Except for a few empty words with the station’s clients, he speaks to no one. He has no friends. “Je suis mort,” he says. Dead, disconnected, withdrawn from the real world. In its place, he creates his own, an alcoholic stew, a fog that blurs the present. Anything to keep the past at bay.
Enter Bensoussan. A young man, half-Jew, half-Arab, part of two opposing worlds. That’s fine with him. On the streets of Belleville, he chooses his own way. A low-rung drug dealer and petty thief, he works out of a bar called Chez Rachid. He sells drugs for Rachid. On the side he makes his own deals, some cash for a rainy day.
He lives in a one-room flat at the end of a rabbit warren of dank, dark passages and crumbling stairways. One wall of the flat is filled with a library of Que sais-je? (What I know). He hides his cash and stash between the book’s pages.
As a thief, his speciality is mopeds and motorcycles. He carries the right tools, bolt cutters, pliers, and possesses an acute sense of the streets, how much a small-time thief can get away with.
One night he steals a dodgy moped. It’s pouring rain. It breaks down. He can’t get it re-started. A police car pulls up behind him, its blue lights flashing on the wet street. He panics. Desperate, and hoping to elude the police, he pushes the moped into Lambert’s petrol station. Lambert thinks he wants essence (petrol). No. He says he thinks it’s la bougie (spark plug). Lambert looks half-heartedly for moped spark plugs. Says he doesn’t have any. Then glances through the window through the rain at the police car pulled up at the edge of the station. Bensoussan looks out at the police car, then turns toward Lambert. Lambert stares at Bensoussan as the police car pulls away. That is the beginning of the story, and those few scenes define the balance of their relationship. It’s not a friendship. More of a kinship. Maybe they see reflected in each other something they recognize in themselves.
Then Lola appears, une jeune femme punk, spikey-bleached hair, a clubber, full of attitude, hangs with the punk crowd. And she loves motorcycles. Bensoussan steals motorcycles. Voilà! If he can’t steal one, he “borrows” Rachid’s. Not the best move, and it could be the worst if Rachid knows. But it’s worth it for Lola. Anything for Lola. One night he takes her pour faire un tour (a spin) through the streets of Paris on Rachid’s motorcycle. And so it begins.
Bensoussan tells Lambert about Lola. As an unusual twist on the femme fatale, she becomes the link between the two men and the catalyst for rooting out Lambert’s past. Lola plays a large role in bringing the story to its climax.
Things come to a head when the police get involved. That happens when there’s been a suspicious death or a murder. In the course of the investigation, Lambert comes to the attention of Bauer, a Paris police detective. It’s through him we learn the details of Lambert’s past. It’s the past he drinks to forget.
In William Faulkner’s 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, he says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And in the film, Tchao Pantin, the past is very much alive.
The French noir film, Tchao Pantin, was released in 1983. It won a César (French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Picture. It’s a story of les paumés, the isolated, the lost, the disoriented, the ones who live on the edge of reality. In the end, it’s a story of vengeance, of righting past wrongs, of love and a little hope, and more, an attempt to speak for the dead as some form of redemption.
The starring role of Lambert is played by Coluche (Michel Gérard Joseph Colucci), a much-loved stand-up comedian in France. Considered the “clown prince” of comedy, he delivered his irreverent social commentary in his trademark striped bib overalls, yellow t-shirt, yellow boots, and frizzed-out hair. Most of his film roles (28) were in comedies. Lambert was Coluche’s first important serious role, and maybe it’s fitting it should have gone to a comic. After all, who knows more about the serious side of life than those who can laugh at it. Coluche is quoted as saying, “I am capable of the best and the worst, but in the worst, I am the best.” No truer words than in his role as Lambert in Tchao Pantin. Coluche won the Best Actor César for his portrayal of the drunken petrol station attendant.
The two young actors, Richard Anconina (Bensoussan) and Agnès Soral (Lola) both started their film careers in 1977. Anconina, with his dark looks and wavy black hair, is convincing and memorable as the smart-ass hustler, Bensoussan. For this role, he won the César for Best Supporting Actor. Agnès Soral, in playing Lola, the bitchy jeune punk, fits in perfectly between the deux autres paumés, Bensoussan and Lambert. She gives as good as she gets and takes no shit from either one. Soral won a César for Best Promising Actress for her role as Lola.
It’s a small role but an important one. Philippe Léotard plays Bauer, a Paris police detective. Léotard is probably best known for his starring role as Dédé in Bob Swaim’s La Balance for which he won a César for Best Actor. He’s appeared in 105 films, and his presence in this one lifts the film and its story to another level. His several meetings with Lambert prove his worth as a detective but fail to penetrate Lambert’s stony indifference.
Claude Berri directed the film and was nominated for a César. A well-respected director in France, most famous for directing the two Marcel Pagnol films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Camera angle and placement are essential to telling a story on film, and Berri knows his stuff. At times, the way he holds the shot on Lambert’s empty face is unsettling.
The film is based on the novel by the same name by Alain Page (pseudonym for Jean-Emmanuel Conil). He and Claude Berri co-wrote the script, also nominated for a Cesar. Through to 2015, Page has written scripts for film and TV as well as over a hundred novels, including romans policiers and espionage. Tchao Pantin is an intimate story. It takes place in a small community in Paris with a limited number of characters, and as Page said himself, they are all les paumés.
Bruno Nuytten shot the film. He was the cinematographer on the two Pagnol films that Berri directed. The look of Tchao Pantin is reminiscent of the gritty, rain-soaked streets of Taxi Driver. Since most of the film takes place at night, the colour film almost resembles black and white. The film is dark but lacks no detail and meshes well with the portent of the story.
The soundtrack/music for the film is a first-time outing for pop-rock musician, Charlélie Couture (Bertrand Charles Elie Couture). The soundtrack was nominated for a César. Couture left the music scene in the nineties and now calls himself a “multist”, presenting his creative work across several disciplines. The music in the film is mournful, despairing, with phrases that, in their repetition, suggest a return to something, perhaps to the past, a place Lambert is all too familiar.
That’s it. Tchao Pantin. Great story, great characters. It’s well worth a watch. You won’t forget it.