Le boucher is rated by many as Chabrol’s best. The blurb on my DVD even went so far as to rate it as one of the world’s greatest films of all time. I liked it less than his others I have seen. In some ways, it seems to touch the limits of the auteur way of cinema, and what people have written about it shows how faddishly intellectual many critics are.
In his usual precise, refined, and exquisitely minimalist way, Chabrol tells us the story of two people in a beautiful provincial town who form an unlikely couple. He is the town butcher – unpretentious, charming in a bluff way, friendly and warm, and obviously, to us, the viewers, but apparently to nobody else, deeply troubled by his life experience, especially his years in the army fighting France’s colonial rearguard actions. He knows all about blood, from his job and the army. She is a classy and educated beauty from…Paris, perhaps, who is the school mistress. She’s young for the job, but very capable. She has self-confidence, manners, and a great wardrobe. They meet at the wedding of one of her teachers and become friendly. Seems like he is more into her than she is into him, definitely. In conversations, he makes more and more allusions to the horrors he’s seen, but she doesn’t bat an eye – seems scarcely interested.
That is the story, except that there are some grisly murders going on in town – a madman is on the loose. Given the way films are, how can we not suspect the butcher of doing the bloody business? Despite the many reviews that cite nail-biting suspense, I felt little. I don’t think that is a fault of Chabrol’s – I don’t think he works that way, but it says a lot about his reviewers. The real story is the relationship of these two, and how little we understand it.
On an outing to the woods, Popaul, the butcher, sounds out Hélène, the schoolmistress on love and sex. She isn’t interested – she was jilted years ago and prefers to be celibate. He says being without sex can make you crazy, and he is disgusted by her remark that there are ”other ways.” She just doesn’t want to take the risk – then she gives him a birthday present of an unusual cigarette lighter. (How did she know it was his birthday?)
When Hélène discovers the body of her teacher’s wife while on an outing with her class to the Cro-Magnon cave paintings nearby, she finds the lighter that she gave Popaul, and conceals it. I believe that this is a key moment in the film, and I was surprised that in the ten or twelve discussions of this film that I looked through, few mention it, or comment on its significance. The reviewers are too busy discussing the nature of evil: is the killer responsible for his deeds, or did society (the war) make him do it? Only one Everyman reviewer hit on a key question:
The wife and me couldn’t make head nor tail of this movie. The schoolteacher doesn’t want no love or kissing. But she seems to like the butcher well enough. She even gives him a present. . .Now when the school teacher finds the cigarette lighter next to the body, it bothered her some. But she doesn’t do nothing! I never have been a lawyer, but I would say that makes her an accessory to a crime.
Later, she has dinner with Popaul, and he produces the lighter when she pulls out a cigarette. She recognizes it and begins sobbing with relief – that means he didn’t do it. He has the lighter. He offers to leave, and she says, “No, I need you!” Finally, while painting her room as a favor, Popaul discovers his lighter in her drawer and realizes that she found it at the crime scene. He takes it! Then he comes back to kill her, confesses his madness, his love for her, and stabs himself. She takes him on a long drive to the hospital, punctuated by his running chat about his obsessions, his lover for her, how only she could help him. She is extraordinarily cool, hardly seems concerned. He dies. She looks at the river – what is she thinking? Close call? What have I done? I’m all alone now? No clue…
Hmm… Why did he take the lighter? He couldn’t guess that she was perfectly willing to let him stay free, slashing girls, as long as he would be good company to her and not try and get her into bed. Many reviewers raise the issue of whether Hélène is responsible for his crimes by refusing his request for love. After all a man ain’t nothin’ but a man, and if he can’t get no lovin’, who knows what he gonna do! Basic needs, savage substrate beneath civilized veneer…all fluff and window dressing I say. To the extent that Chabrol intended to convey those facile ideas, he veered onto the wrong track.
No, the commenter had it right. Hélène is the accomplice, and is responsible. Not because she didn’t want to go to bed with him – why should she? Doesn’t she have the right to live singly if she wants? My guess is that a lot of reviewers think she does not, think that this is unnatural. Hah! Probably they wish they were in bed with Stéphane Audran! Nope, she is responsible because she is a deeply selfish and amoral person who is unperturbed by the fact that she left a murderer loose to kill an innocent woman just so she could carry on with a relationship that satisfied her. Popaul is pathetic and mad, she is truly frightening. This is the underhanded brilliance of the film, but I think a lot of critics have missed it with their preoccupation with social criticism, class mores, conventionality, the violence that underlies all culture, yada, yada, yada…
Or…is Vincent Canby correct when he says:
I find it impossible to accept the suggestion that Chabrol ultimately makes, that is, that Mile. Hélène could have saved the psychotic killer from himself had she not been afraid to love, and that, by withholding her love, she is in some way as much of a beast as he is, fit to be condemned to eternal loneliness.
Not sure who is outfoxing whom in this maze, but it seems to me that Chabrol is not suggesting that she is beast for simply withholding her love for the reasons that I suggest. Why else would he be so insistent on the point, through the police inspector, that if no clue is found, more women will die, and that if she has anything at all of interest, she should contact him immediately. Not to mention that he compliments her on her remarkable sang froid when she found the cropse. She knows what she is doing, or might be doing, and she does it anyway. Her real crime is quite pedestrian after all, and says little about the state of civilization. When Popaul faces her with a knife, she closes her eyes. If he kills her, she knows she deserves it. He’s actually a better person than she, so he kills himself.
I said that this film hints at the limit of the auteur. After feasting on Chabrol, I feel the need for some industrialized entertainment. One man, one intellectual, one vision, one set of obsessions…not the only way to do art. Hitchcock famously said that this is one of two films he wished he’d made. I sort of wish he had too. His blood curdling humor and total lack of intellectual hobbyhorses might have made for a more powerful tale.