Director: Claude Chabrol
Production: Films La Boétie (Paris), Euro-International (Rome); Eastmancolor; running time: 94 minutes. Released April 1970. Filmed at Le Trémolat, Périgord, France.
Producer: André Génovès; production manager: Fred Surin; assistant director: Pierre Gaucher; screenplay: Claude Chabrol; photography: Jean Rabier; editor: Jacques Gaillard; sound: Guy Chichignoud; sound re-recordist: Alex Prout; art director: Guy Littaye; music: Pierre Jansen; song: "Capri, Petite Ile" by Dominique Zardi.
Cast: Stéphane Audran ( Hélène Marcoux ); Jean Yanne ( Popaul Thomas ); Antonio Passalia ( Angelo ); Mario Beccaria ( Léon Hamel );
Wood, Robin, and Michael Walker, Claude Chabrol , London, 1970.
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* * *
Set in the Périgord village of Le Trémolat, Chabrol's delicately textured film is an unconventionally chaste, and tragic, love story about two emotionally damaged characters, the village schoolmistress, Mlle. Hélène (Stéphane Audran), and the local butcher, Popaul (Jean Yanne). Both the location and the protagonists' professions are central to Chabrol's purpose.
The credit sequence, with Pierre Jansen's disquieting music distancing the viewer, rolls against images of primitive cave drawings, the work of prehistoric man attempting to relate to his world. This explicit reference to man's antecedents establishes an important theme in the film: the residual atavistic impulses in 20th-century man. Popaul incarnates the continued presence of these untamed primitive instincts and his self-knowledge renders this situation tragic. He appears gentle, considerate, rather conventional, even puritanical, and possesses an almost childlike respect for the village schoolmistress. A desperately unhappy and emotionally deprived family background, however, and 15 brutalising years in the army have left their scars: he has yet to come to terms with this past. Mlle. Hélène, liberated, self-possessed, and sophisticated, represents culture and moral authority, the epitome of the evolved, civilised human being. Yet she too has to come to terms with her own nature, and a failed relationship, which have made her wary of sentimental involvement. Her emotional needs may be satisfied with her surrogate family of pupils, and her sexual drive sublimated through Yoga, but her situation, like that of Popaul, is ultimately fragile. Each character is incomplete.
Developed from Chabrol's original conception, the two protagonists illustrate his stated commitment to films of psychological enquiry: "I am for simple plots with complicated characters." The story of their fraught relationship is evolved against positive images of a normality they cannot share. The film opens with Raoul Coutard's beautiful sweeping pan of the peaceful Dordogne countryside captured with the muted colours of early morning. These images of tranquility give way to an affectionate portrait of the sunny village busying itself for a wedding and the ensuing celebrations. The enjoyment is spontaneous, the sense of community strong in the shared happiness of the occasion. Among these genuine inhabitants the camera identifies the two protagonists, the Parisian schoolmistress now part of the village, and the butcher recently returned from war service: they are potentially another happy couple. A slow, unwinding tracking shot of their walk through the village establishes their burgeoning intimacy. Gifts are exchanged as a manageable expression of feeling: a leg of lamb from Popaul, a lighter from Hélène. Popaul reflects ominously: "If you never make love, you go crazy."
The main issues of the film are played out in two juxtaposed sequences. Mlle. Hélène rehearses her pupils for the village fete: they are dressed in Louis XIV costumes and dance elegantly, if somewhat artificially, to the music of Lully. An image of stylised sophistication is conveyed, counterpointing the spontaneity of the accordion-led dancing at the wedding reception. The zooming camera reveals, in a subjective close-up, Popaul's desire for Hélène. A dissolve switches the action to the local caves, the home of Cro-Magnon man, where Mlle. Hélène explains that were prehistoric man to re-appear in the 20th century he would have to adapt to survive. On the outcrop above the caves the thwarted sexual drive of a psychopath has expressed itself in a brutal murder. The horror is conveyed in a zoom shot, of shocking emotional force, to the victim's hand dripping blood. Hélène finds by the body a lighter which she conceals.
The viewer sharing this information becomes complicitous in Hélène's spontaneous response to protect Popaul. Tension and ambiguity are installed in the narrative framework as Hélène longs to be proved wrong even though she may be in danger herself. The mood darkens with the rain-drenched funeral contrasting the so recently sunny wedding. Chabrol leads the viewer to identify with Hélène's perceptions, to suspect the worse, to experience fear as she does when Popaul stalks her in the pitch-dark school. Her failure to respond to his obvious need for help, like Charlie's failure to respond to his wife's confession in Tirez sur le pianiste , leads to a self-inflicted punishment and an enduring sense of guilt in the partner found wanting at the crucial moment. The closing image of the film with Hélène at the riverside conveys emptiness and the loneliness of a personal, inadmissible sense of guilt.
Le Boucher is a subtle network of shifting emotions, of changing moods, and of psychological insights, expressed to a rare degree of perfection. The remarkable integration of form and meaning in the film is an eloquent testimony to the value of Chabrol's policy of working closely with a regular production team. His moving portrayal of the psychopath is based in a compassionate desire to understand, and must rank alongside such studies as Lang's M in its penetration and humanity. Although the psychologically disturbed character is the subject of later films Chabrol has yet to emulate the perfection achieved in Le Boucher.