Director: Claude Berri
Screenplay: Claude Berri, Alain Page
Based on a Novel by: Alain Page
Starring: Coluche, Richard Anconina, Agnès Soral, Mahmoud Zemmouri, Philippe Léotard, Albert Dray, Mohamed Ben Smaïl
Country: France
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1983
BBFC Certificate: 15

Tchao Pantin (a.k.a. So Long, Stooge) was directed by the French director, writer, producer and actor Claude Berri just before his big international hits Jean de Florette and Manon des sources. That diptych was shot back-to-back at great expense for a French production. It was likely the great success of Tchao Pantin that allowed him the resources to embark on such a venture though.

The film performed well at the local box office and won a whopping 5 Cesar Awards, though it missed out on Best Film and Best Director. It was also selected as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film of that year but was not accepted as a nominee.

Tchao Pantin is somewhat of a cult classic in France these days but remains less well-known elsewhere. Hoping to remedy this are Radiance Films, who are releasing the film on region A&B Blu-ray.

Tchao Pantin is set in the gritty underbelly of Paris’ 18th district, where we meet two lonely souls: Lambert (Coluche), a world-weary nightshift attendant at a petrol station, and Bensoussan (Richard Anconina), a half-Arabian, half-Jewish small-time drug dealer. Lambert, a heavy drinker with a mysterious past, keeps to himself, finding comfort only in the quiet solitude of his night shift. Bensoussan, desperate and manipulative, initially seeks refuge at the station with a fabricated story. Despite their differences, an unlikely bond forms between them.

A tragic incident later draws Lambert into Bensoussan’s world and this causes the broken figure to pick up the pieces and step up for his only friend. Also pulled into the ensuing trouble is Bensoussan’s one-time girlfriend, Lola (Agnès Soral).

I must admit, I had little knowledge of Tchao Pantin before getting hold of a copy to review it but I thought it was fantastic. The film deftly balances sensitive character study with gritty crime drama to create something that played very much to my tastes.

For one, the film looks gorgeous. It makes striking use of its locations and naturalistic lighting to create a believable world that oozes atmosphere. This is further enhanced by almost entirely being set at night, occasionally with torrential rain.

Shooting on actual streets in the 18th district, where a lot of Arabs lived, reportedly made for some dangerous confrontations. Due to some of Coluche’s offensive comedy sketches as well as the fact the film was depicting Arabs as drug dealers, many felt the film being made would be racist, so would make their feelings known during production. One of Berri’s techniques to tackle this though was to hire the disruptive locals. Not only did it placate the troublemakers, but it also added an extra layer of naturalism to the background.

The film is elegantly directed too, with much of the story and character development being delivered visually rather than through reams of dialogue. In fact, much of Lambert’s background is kept from us until he pours his heart out in a monologue near the end of the film.

It’s the central friendship between Lambert and Bensoussan that provides the heart of Tchao Pantin and this is touchingly presented, without ever getting sentimental. Indeed, whilst the film could be called a sensitive character study, there are still moments of extreme violence. When this occurs, it’s generally swift and brutal, feeling terrifyingly real rather than glamorising the act.

Key to the success of the drama is the set of performances at its core, particularly that of Coluche. The actor first found fame as a music hall star and then as a provocative comedian. Tchao Pantin sees him take a much more serious role for the first time, outside of a couple of small parts in TV shows.

Coluche had previously worked with Berri on Le Pistonné and Le Maître d’école, as well as several films that Berri produced, rather than directed. It was Tchao Pantin that saw him win his sole Best Actor award at the Césars though. He sadly died only three years after the release of the film in a motorbike accident.

Though seemingly playing an older character, Coluche was only 39 when he starred in the film so, on top of the change of tone, he looked to have truly transformed himself for the role. However, Coluche had his own problems with drugs and alcohol and was going through a very difficult time in the early 80s, with his wife having left him, his agent being assassinated and a political gambit getting out of hand, among other personal issues. So the actor may have called upon his own demons when approaching the role of Lambert. Indeed, those involved in the film have openly stated that Coluche was often under the influence whilst on set.

However he managed it, Coluche did an excellent job. His work provides the backbone to a wonderfully low-key but powerful crime drama with a rich character study at its heart. All-in-all, Tchao Pantin is a beautifully crafted, touching yet gritty gem.

Film:

Tchao Pantin is out on 29th July on region A&B Blu-Ray, released by Radiance Films. It looks astonishingly good, with gorgeous colours and rich, natural details and textures. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of how it looks, though these have been compressed. It sounds great too.

LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES

– 4K restoration by Pathé approved by cinematographer Bruno Nuytten
– Uncompressed mono PCM audio
– Once Upon a Time… Tchao Pantin – A documentary on the film featuring interviews with writer-director Claude Berri, novelist Alain Page, stars Richard Anconina, Mahmoud Zemmouri, Agnés Soral, cinematographer Bruno Nyutten and others (2003, 55 mins)
– Essay by Michael Abecassis
– Trailer
– Newly improved English subtitle translation
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Filippo Di Battista
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Manuela Lazic
– Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

Included on the disc is a 52-minute documentary about the making of the film. This is excellent. Featuring Berri, Richard Anconina, Agnès Soral, Alain Page and other important contributors to the film, it covers a great deal, though it focuses largely on the life and work of Coluche. It’s required viewing to better understand where the film was coming from.

Michael Abecassis’ essay covers some familiar ground to the documentary but is significantly shorter (around 7 minutes) so is more concise and digestible, for those who want to learn about the background of the film without watching the other, near-feature-length, piece.

I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

Overall, whilst looking a little sparse on paper, the extras included on the disc are substantial and provide great value. When added to the quality of the film and transfer, they make for a release that I highly recommend.

Disc/package:

Tchao Pantin (a.k.a. So Long, Stooge)- Radiance
Film
Disc/Package
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