Le Boucher (1970)
aka: The Butcher
A film directed by Claude Chabrol

Genre: Crime / Thriller / Drama / Romance

Film Review

Le Boucher photo
The transference of guilt is a well-known psychological phenomenon which features heavily in the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It is also the main unifying theme in a remarkable series of films that director Claude Chabrol made in the late 1960s, arguably as a homage to the great master of suspense. La Femme infidèle (1969), Que la bête meure (1969) and Le Boucher (1970) form a loose trilogy, each film revolving around the notion of shared guilt for a murder. In each case, the identity of the killer is initially apparent but becomes blurred when another party assumes responsibility for the crime. Le Boucher is the most interesting of the three films and is arguably Chabrol's nearest approximation to Hitchcock, both in its subject matter and quality.

Whilst Le Boucher is best remembered for its chilling psycho-thriller denouement, it is actually a far more complex and disturbing piece than this would suggest. Beneath the deceptive simplicity of the conventional thriller narrative there lies a profound and deeply unsettling study in the perversity of human nature. From the outset, we know who the murderer is, but Chabrol is so effective in getting us to align our sympathies with the heroine that this certainty becomes lost in a haze of ambiguity. As a consequence of her inability to commit herself to the man she is drawn to, Hélène assumes his burden of guilt. If only she had loved Popaul, if only she had managed to get him to open up to her, a gruesome tragedy might have been averted. By taking the blame for failing to tame the savage, Hélène makes herself complicit in his crimes. She becomes the butcher.

The film's twisted irony is magnificently underscored by the arresting and carefully nuanced performances of the two lead actors, Stéphane Audran and Jean Yanne. The tough self-reliance of Audran's portrayal of Hélène is perfectly complemented by Yanne's apparent puppy-like vulnerability, so even from their first scene their mutual dependency is established. The ever virtuous schoolteacher, Hélène sees Popaul not as a future lover but as someone she must take under her wing. The film begins as it should have ended, amidst the joyful celebrations of a wedding feast. When we first see them, we might easily mistake Hélène and Popaul as the newly married couple. Yet these first impressions are misleading and we soon realise that there is a side to both characters which will prevent them from finding shared happiness. They have both seen Hell and, unable to move on from a traumatic past, to Hell they are bound to return.

As Pierre Jansen's discordant music intimates, there are dark forces at work in the background, forces which make it impossible for Hélène and Popaul to go beyond mere friendship and which cause thwarted desire to seek relief through other forms of carnal indulgence. Even when there can be no doubt as to the identity of the serial killer, Hélène still deludes herself into believing that Popaul is innocent. How could such an amiable soul who keeps offering her parcels of meat as presents possibly be the fiend who goes around slicing up young women?   Even when the last veil has fallen and the killer stands before her, knife in hand, Hélène still cannot acknowledge his guilt. It is not fear of a brutal death that takes her over in these harrowing moments of realisation, but an awareness that she herself is the killer. Her frantic efforts to save Popaul in the film's nervewracking conclusion are as pathetic and they are tragic. By the time she is ready to surrender her love to him, it is too late. The climax passes in a catharsis of blood-soaked horror, and as her lover's guilt floods through her veins Hélène appears almost gratified. The butcher has done his work.
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At the wedding of a colleague in a rural French town, school headmistress Hélène meets the local butcher Paul Thomas, nicknamed Popaul...
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Film Credits

Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring: Stéphane Audran, Jean Yanne, Antonio Passalia, Pascal Ferone, Mario Beccara, William Guérault, Roger Rudel
[Read more...]

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