At a wedding party in a rural French village, schoolteacher Hélène (Stéphane Audran) meets the local butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne), recently returned after fifteen years service in the army. The pair become friends although Hélène is hesitant to embark on a love affair since being badly hurt by her last boyfriend, while Popaul bears his own psychological scars owing to atrocities he witnessed during the war. Yet these two wounded souls seem on the verge of healing each other when their idyll is shattered by a series of brutal murders amidst the countryside. On school trip to explore the local prehistoric cave paintings, Hélène discovers the body of her colleague Leon’s (Mario Beccara) young wife, and lying beside it the cigarette lighter she gave as a present to Popaul…
Beginning with La Femme Infidèle (1969), psychological suspense master Claude Chabrol and his then-spouse/favourite leading lady Stéphane Audran made their critically-lauded “Hélène cycle” (so-called because Audran’s heroines all share the same name), eventually encompassing Le Boucher, La Rupture (1970), and Just Before Nightfall (1971) (for which Audran won a BAFTA for Best Actress). Le Boucher remains one of Chabrol’s most enduring efforts, a quietly unsettling fable in which the erstwhile Hitchcock devotee contrasts claustrophobic inner turmoil against the surface tranquillity of French provincial life. He underlines his intentions with a scene where Hélène introduces schoolchildren to the writings of Balzac, as an artist painting a portrait of society. It’s the late Sixties, sections of society are undergoing psychological trauma that the surface majority are seemingly unable, or unwilling to notice.
Credits play over an array of prehistoric cave paintings that together with Pierre Jansen’s eerie electronic score imparts an unsettling edge to the seemingly innocuous events that follow. Chabrol lovingly details the minutiae of village life: cooks preparing a mouth-watering roast for the wedding feast, children at play, chickens clucking in the yard; but as his camera glides purposefully past these everyday sights he seemingly senses something dark and nasty bubbling beneath the surface. Just as Popaul, though happily honoured with carving the meat he supplied, seems almost imperceptibly ill-at-ease amidst all this good humour and bonhomie.
And yet equipped with a wry wit and self-deprecating manner, Popaul is an engaging guy. For most of its running time Le Boucher plays out like a tentative love story, but gradually Chabrol ratchets up the tension. Warning signs arise when the friendly neighbourhood butcher argues the killing of an innocent girl pales beside the horrors he witnessed in the war, then later carries on conversing while Hélène is visibly traumatised by Mrs. Hamel’s murder. He yearns to be understood. Just count the amount of times he tells Hélène “I spent fifteen years in the army.”
The relationship is beautifully played between Audran and Jean Yanne, an actor and humorist who had been on the peripheries for years, with the exception of Weekend (1967) by Jean-Luc Godard, before Le Boucher made him a star. He went on to direct a number of scandalous satirical comedies, none more so than Deux heures moins le quart avant Jesus Christ (1982), which was France’s answer to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979). Yanne also created the cult psychedelic sci-fi comic book Les Dossiers du B.I.D.E, part of his contributions to French counterculture in the late Sixties.
Chabrol never shows any of the actual murders, since the act is less important to him than the psychological after-effects wrought by violent death. Nevertheless, the moment a single drop of blood drips onto a frightened little girl is very disturbing and the last twenty minutes or so are as nerve-shredding as any regular serial killer film. Things do not play out like any ordinary face-off between killer and final girl and in its own quiet way, ends on a note both deeply chilling and humane.
A renowned director of French thrillers, he was one of the originators of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties, often concentrating on middle class characters going through crises that led to murder, and made around fifty of these films in his long career. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he went on to direct such respected efforts as Les Cousins, The Champagne Murders, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Blood Relatives, Poulet au Vinaigre, a version of Madame Bovary with frequent star Isabelle Huppert, L'enfer, La Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two with Ludivine Sagnier, and his final work for the cinema, Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu.