The main characters of Claude Chabrol’s “Le Boucher” or “The Butcher” have very different professions, she is a school headmistress, and he is a butcher; but loneliness brings them together. She triggers dangerous impulses in him, and he seems to have changed her forever when their friendship comes to an end.
The story of “Le Boucher” or ” The Butcher (1970) takes place in a peaceful French village called Tremolat. The film begins with a wedding scene and the only thing that stops the audience from thinking they are going to watch a family drama is the film’s haunting soundtrack.
From the moment the first murder takes place at the village, Popaul the Butcher becomes our primary suspect. We all know it and just waiting for the moment to find the proof. One would wonder if Miss Helene (Stéphane Audran) suspected it too, long before she saw his lighter at the scene of the crime.
The question that we as the audience get to wonder about is that: will he kill her too? It appears that Miss Helene, a woman of an excellent education is amazed by his savagery at times and lets him near her to feel a thrill even though she knows he is dangerous.
During a school trip when Miss Helene takes her students to the Lascaux caves and shows them the wall paintings inside, she speaks of Cro-Magnon Man and his savagery with admiration. Questioned by a child about what Cro-Magnon Man would do if he came back she answers: “Maybe he would adapt and live among us or maybe he would die.” Is she unconsciously thinking of Popaul?
Miss Helene first meets Popaul (Jeane Yanne) when she is seated next to him at the wedding ceremony of her colleague. The first thing that attracts her attention towards him is his skilled way of carving a roast. She watches him in fascination and starts eating her piece before anyone else. It’s hard not to notice her happiness and her constant awareness of the butcher’s presence.
After the wedding, he walks her back to the school- where she also lives. We have an amusing three minutes and 46 seconds of both of them walking in the village. “ Do you smoke in the street?” The butcher asks her shocked. She says she does and adds an attitude to her smoking as well. Chabrol draws a picture of female domination with this scene and the one at Miss Helene’s place where Popaul sits on a small chair next to her that makes him look like one of her students.
She is not married, neither has any lovers. Questioned by the butcher about it, she speaks of her former bad experience in love, which made her decide to do without men. Popaul doesn’t seem to have much to say except for his rants about his 15 years in the army and the many corpses he has witnessed while being in Algiers and Indochina. During the school trip to the cave, children sit on the ledge to eat their lunches, a drop of blood falls on a little girl, it’s the blood of the new victim – the bride of the opening wedding scene.
Miss Helene goes up and discovers the body and the special lighter she has recently given to the butcher for his birthday. She takes the lighter hides it in her hands and won’t tell the police about it. Not long after the incident, Popaul comes over; he has brought a jar of brandy marinated cherries. “ They’re the best I’ve ever had,” says Miss Helene before even trying one. The suspense in that scene is very high, what does she thinking? Isn’t she scared to sit with a killer? Finally, she asks for a light to smoke a cigarette, he pulls out the same lighter, she lets out a relieved laughter.
Chabrol makes a theme of smoking in this movie. Smoking becomes the sign of Miss Helene’s power over the butcher. We never see him smoke unless she starts smoking. Her blonde hair is another theme, of which we get two meaningful close-up shots.
The story comes to a crux which will not be described to avoid spoiling the film for those who have not seen it, but at the end when the butcher appears weak, and his eyes are full of need, Miss Helene remains calm and cold. We can’t guess her thoughts. Does she feel satisfied that she has power over this man? Is she afraid? Does she pity him? Or maybe she gets some form of sexual pleasure out of this?
Stephane Audran, who plays Miss Helene in this movie, was married to Chabrol when he made this film. She has very expressive eyes. In fact, her eyes play a major role in this movie. They are hiding all of her secrets in them and add to our suspense. Her character in this film is oddly similar to Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Belle de Jour” She was married to Chabrol for 16 years, during which they worked together in several movies – “Les Cousins” (1959), “The Champagne Murders” (1966), “Les Biches” (1968) and “Le Femme Infidele” (1969),
Claude Chabrol born in 1930, started his career as a film critic writing for an anti-establishment magazine called Cahiers du Cinema – just like Godard and Truffaut. He died in 2010 and was one of the few survivors of a generation who founded a radical form of filmmaking known as the French New Wave Cinema. He has made numerous movies including “ La Ceremonie” in 1995 which has drawn a lot of admiration. His last movie came out in 2009 – one year before his death.
What some of the reviewers of “ Le Boucher” seemed to have missed is the psychological aspect of the film. Reducing this film to another horror movie about a savage murderer would be unfair. It is true that we have a killer on our hands. But was he always like that or he was hugely traumatized in the army and is a victim himself? He seems to be disgusted by the meats he has to cut every day. Is he appalled by his profession?
Do we have to praise Miss Helene just because she does not commit a crime? “ What would you do if I kiss you?” Popaul asked her after she told him about her bad luck in love .” Nothing, but I rather you didn’t,” she replies. Couldn’t she stop the murders by sleeping with him? Why does she tease him like that when she has no intention of even granting him a kiss?
She seems to be very nonchalant about the news of the first murder. She remains calm when she discovers the next body. Does she have a fetish of danger? Is Popaul fascinated by her because she is emotionally unavailable?
These are the questions that remain unanswered in the movie. One thing for sure is that this film is not a simple horror about a butcher who killed young women because Claude Chabrol was no ordinary filmmaker.