"Coup de Torchon" (Clean Slate) is a bizarre film that's sometimes frightening, sometimes comic. It could also be called "The Blockhead Strikes Back," if the joke weren't drenched in blood. Hard to define, it leaves an aftertaste of confusion and a need to forget.

In a French colony in Africa, a police chief goes on a killing spree. Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is playing God, ridding the world of some of its vermin. As a feckless bumbler who never arrests anyone, he's the last suspect; he does away with his personal nuisances as easily as swatting flies.

"Coup de Torchon" is based on a novel by Jim Thompson called "Pop. 1280," set in the American Deep South. The setting has been transposed to an African town, bounded by stark, inhospitable sands and a murky river -- a place where people turn in on themselves, and the distinctions between good and evil are shaded.

It is just before the outbreak of World War II. Blacks are a forgotten people. The chasm between the races is exemplified by a scene in which white men in white suits shoot rifles for sport at black bodies drifting down the river -- souls that have been entrusted to the river in a burial rite.

Unshaven, gross and slovenly in his pink undershirt, Cordier tries to justify his murders by saying he's Jesus Christ: God told him to kill, but he didn't necessarily agree. Or, he says, he beats up on the helpless because he can't touch the rich and powerful, who protect themselves. Or, he's taking the rap for murders that everyone else wants committed. And, he wonders, what is murder, compared to other horrors?

When Cordier has had enough of taking nihilism into his own hands, he tricks others into doing it for him, contriving an explosive situation that can only end in destruction for his lover, his wife, her lover and so on, while he sits back to watch.

"Coup de Torchon" is a Tower of Babel of theology: a moral tale or a mindgame. You can pick your own message.

COUP DE TORCHON -- K-B Janus.