Mildly diverting and exceedingly shallow, "Coup de Tete" suggests a French provincial version of "Slap Shot."
Opening today at the K-B Janus, it stars Patrick Dewaere as a brash reserve on a small-town soccer team, the focus of civic pride and aspiration in a community of small-minded boosters. While deploring unscrupulous manipulation, director Jean-Jacques Annaud and screenwriter Francis Veber have unscrupulously manipulated the plot of this would-be scathing sports parable.
The princiapl owner of the Trincamp team also owns the largest local industry, a bakery. One of the privileges of team membership appears to be a cushy job at the plant. Dewaere begins losing his privileges when he accidently injures the star player in a practice. Kicked off the team and fired from his factory job, he hangs around town longer than he should, getting by on menial labor and sustaining a clandestine affair with a married woman.
Drunk and aroused one fateful night, he pays a reckless call on his girlfriend, luring her out the bedroom window and onto a painter's scaffold for a teetery, loony, unfinished interlude of slapstick copulation. Fleeing the premises, Dewaere later finds himself accused of a rape attempt that occurred simultaneously in another part of town. Although the victim seems unsure of her assailant's identity, Dewaere is fingered by the passersby who discovered her -- a pair of team officials, a local car dealer and department store owner, who obviously perjure themselves for reasons temporarily undisclosed.
Dewaere rots in jail for a few months until a bus accident leaves a group of team members injured. In desperation, the owners arrange to spring Dewaere to avoid forfeiting a big game. The warden, a rabid soccer fan, readily agrees.
The outcast becomes a hero on the field. Suddenly lionized and indulged, Dewaere exploits his celebrity status to get even with everyone who framed him and record his contempt for the community at large.
Annaud came to prominence in 1976 as the director of "Black and White in Color," a promising but ultimately complacent satire about jingoistic European colonials in West Africa at the outbreak of World War I. Annaud's new film recapitulates the thematic weaknesses of his first feature, suggesting that where social satire is concerned, this filmmaker is a specialist in cheap-shot opportunism.
Moviegoers who thought "North Dallas Forty" was a little unfair to professional football might want to reconsider after observing Annaud and Veber (one of the authors of "La Cageaux Folles" and the writer-director of the clever Pierre Richard comedy "The Toy") set up the Trincampians as objects of unmitigated derision. The sometimes unscrupulous representatives of authority in "North Dallas Forty" always had their reasons and articulated them effectively. "Coup de Tete" lacks not only the adversary perspective but also the heroic one of "North Dallas Forty," which stemmed from an intimate understanding of a player's psychology.
The case against boosterism Trincamp style is never better than trite. It amounts to evoking a feeling of cultural superiority by sniggering at yokels who become emotionally involved in the home team and express their enthusiasm in vulgar, noisy ways. No doubt French provincial audiences associate the bad habits of Trincamp with other towns -- and even then with their tongues in their cheeks.
It would be presumptuous to draw any conclusions about provincial forms of ignorance or hypocrisy from the loaded evidence in "Coup de Tete." The hero's incarceration is a crude plot device, further compromised by ill-conceived ramifications, especially an ugly, misleading episode that makes it appear the hero might actually try to rape the girl he was falsely accused of attacking.
Playing a dirty facile game of their own, Annaud and Veber leave themselves without a critical leg to stand on. It never seems to occur to them, for example, that the protagonist might be diminished in our eyes as he grows more smugly vindictive; and Dewaere enhances the worst self-righteous tendencies in the material.
Moreover, it's difficult to tell how sincerely the filmmakers take their own fabricated indictment. The tone keeps wavering from knockabout farce to haughty indignation, producing a satiric cartoon that never inspires confidence. "Coup de Tete" goes for the jugular, but it inflicts only flesh wounds.