Director: Claude Chabrol
In his book "Have You Seen . . . ?" David Thomson calls Le Boucher "a picture to be seen repeatedly over the years." In my experience, such movies tend to fall into two groups. In one group are the most complex films—Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Persona, 8½, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—the convoluted products of a great filmmaker's overcrowded imagination that invite you to savor their technical and narrative intricacies again and again, but even after many viewings still remain resistant to ever being fully known. In the other group are the simplest films—Bringing Up Baby, The Naked Spur, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pather Panchali—movies made not without style, but with an absolute economy of style that reduces film storytelling to its essentials. If Thomson is right about Le Boucher, then it is definitely of the latter type.
The film begins at a wedding in the Périgord, in south central France, where Hélène (Stéphane Audran), the principal of the village elementary school, and Popaul (Jean Yanne), the local butcher, find themselves seated next to each other at a banquet table. It's obvious from the beginning that a special rapport exists between them, and the two strike up an immediate friendship that soon develops into an easy camaraderie that stops just short of romance. Both are in a sense outsiders, and both have experience of the greater world beyond the rather insular village.
Popaul, a native of the village, has spent the last fifteen years in the Army in both Southeast Asia and Algeria, returning only recently to take over the local butcher shop. Hélène, who comes from Paris, is clearly much more sophisticated and better educated than other women in the village. Her chic hair style and clothes set her apart here, where a woman who smokes in the street, which she does, is considered daring and unconventional. When Popaul walks Hélène home—she lives in an apartment over the school—it's obvious these two will be seeing more of each other. Popaul seems a bit more eager to pursue the friendship than Hélène, boldly showing up in her classroom to bring her a special leg of lamb, offering to paint her apartment. But she doesn't resist the charming and persistent butcher, inviting him to dine with her when she cooks the lamb and later to go mushrooming with her and two of her students.
Life in the dozy village is soon shattered when two women are murdered, stabbed to death apparently at random and without motive, and it becomes apparent that there is a serial killer in the region. Hélène's comfortable, predictable life is also shattered when she becomes involved in the crimes. After taking her students on a field trip to the nearby caves to see the prehistoric cave paintings, she discovers a third victim. This happens after one of the students, a young girl sitting under an overhanging rock, notices something dripping on the piece of bread she is eating and it turns out to be not what it seems at first—raspberry or strawberry jam—but blood, an image that graphically conveys a chilling juxtaposition of the ordinary and the horrifying. That this is the first and only time in the film Chabrol uses such visual shock tactics makes the scene all the more jolting.
Chabrol doesn't equivocate about casting suspicion on Popaul. A loner without any friends aside from Hélène, he seems to dwell on the grisly details of the war atrocities he has witnessed in the Army. When Hélène finds the cigarette lighter she bought Popaul as a present lying near the body, her alarm grows, but rather than tell the police, she takes it home and hides it. Soon after this, Popaul shows up outside Hélène's window late one evening with a jar of brandied cherries he has brought her from Périgueux and asks to come up to her apartment. The five-minute long sequence that follows is a marvel of directorial virtuosity—masterful in the union of image and sound, the succession of apparently functional but subtly artistic shots, and especially the play of expressions on the faces of the solicitous Popaul and the anxiety-ridden Hélène as they eat cherries and carry on a desultory conversation that eventually works its way to Hélène's distress over finding the body. The scene finally resolves itself with Popaul taking from his pocket the lighter Hélène thought she had found near the body and Hélène in her relief asking him to stay the night. The entire sequence is a model of meticulous attention to detail used to create mounting tension that culminates in abrupt release.
In fact, Chabrol's direction of the entire movie could be characterized by his meticulous and unfailingly apt selection of detail. Hélène's apartment over the school, a picture of stylish domesticity with its tasteful, cozy furniture and eclectic array of art prints covering the walls; the unpretentious but faintly bohemian Citroën Deux Chevaux she drives; the tidy, picturesque rustic village with its pollarded trees and place with a central fountain; the surrounding landscape with its idyllic woods, eerie caves filled with stalactites and Cro-Magnon wall paintings, and misty river and fields—Chabrol orchestrates all these surface details to create an atmosphere so specific and real that it is almost palpable. Moreover, he works the same kind of artful magic with his deceptively simple direction, which uses all these things not as visual ends in themselves but as visual aids to propel the narrative through its trajectory. Throughout the entire film there is a fascinating tension between the sensational subject and Chabrol's almost contemplative directing style, entirely free of unnecessary embellishment without ever seeming austere or clinical.
Along with Chabrol, the film belongs to Stéphane Audran, who was at the time married to Chabrol, and Jean Yanne. It's difficult to imagine two actors who could have so convincingly inhabited the characters of Hélène, living in the village almost in self-exile, and the enigmatic and needy Popaul. Like the film itself, these are characters who at first appear simple enough. But as Chabrol adds more layers, revealing details about their backgrounds and showing the ways they interact with other people and especially each other, we begin to see them as quite intricate and individualized human beings. As their friendship develops, it brings out things each has consciously repressed, in the end resulting in an emotional catharsis as draining for the viewer as for the characters in the film. In both subject and style, Le Boucher is something of a paradox—a film that is stark without being bleak, stoical without being grim.
The death of Claude Chabrol at the age of eighty was announced on September 12. Because this is the first film of his I've seen, I hesitated to give it a full **** rating. But the more I reflected on its virtues—its concision, restraint, absolute surety of technique, strong sense of character and place, and tolerant view of human fallibility—the more I felt it deserved my highest rating. I've added more of Chabrol's movies to my Netflix queue and will be watching them in the coming weeks and months.