I have not watched Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (The Butcher) since high school. Back then we watched it in French class, over and over, and analyzed it to death. At least that was what I thought at the time. In reality, it cannot have been that many times, but it felt that way and I remember despising the movie. While I cannot say I learned a lot of French, my talent for languages is very poor, I did learn a lot about Le Boucher.
Now, upon re-watching it many years later, I cannot recall why it was I disliked it so much. In fact, it is not bad at all.
In a small town in Perigord, France, a man, Popaul (Jean Yanne), and a woman, Helene (Stephane Audran) get acquainted at a wedding. He is the town butcher and she is school headmistress. They get friendly, he probably a bit more than her. Meanwhile, young women start to die in or near the town, always cut to pieces, never raped. Apparently two unrelated stories, except that Popaul’s favorite subject is meat, blood and death…
The reason our French teacher liked this movie so much is that it is loaded with symbols. I do not remember half of those, but they usually relate to blood, sex, death and the color red. There are caves nearby with ancient cave paintings and the score hints at something primeval and discordant. The analysis was that Popaul desires Helene (symbol of beauty and purity from Homer’s Illiad), but is constantly held off by Helene. He finds sexual release in killing girls because he has some stone age instincts that tells him to do so.
While I am fully on board with the sexual release, it is strange, but plausible, I never was able to reconcile the idea that killing girls for sexual release is a particularly caveman thing to do. I somehow doubt that this was the kind of thing stone age man went around doing. Otherwise it is a miracle humanity got anywhere. What is more likely is that primitive man is associated with animal instincts and that there is some sort of animalistic drive for violence and sex that draw on the same energy. It is a bit far-fetched, but psychotic killers are usually off the rails, so why not?
What I noticed this time round is the unique ambience “Le Boucher” manages to project. It is a melancholic tristesse combined with an ominous feeling of danger. This is strangely at odds with the idyllic and calm ambience that a cozy, small French town should project and probably why it is so unsettling.
The crime story itself works quite well, particularly the part where Helene suspect Popaul to be the murderer. There is a great moment where Helene, and us, the audience, I suppose, think she is going to be stabbed, only to find that the killer impales himself. I found that a bit anticlimactic. Had he killed Helene it would have been a different movie. Instead the crime story fizzles, and we are back with murder as a sexual release device.
A small detail I enjoyed was the outing to the caves. I am a sucker for cave paintings and those I have seen in France are mind-blowing. They are such a blast from the past, especially in real life, and as a device to conjure the primeval they are unbeatable.
This is not a bad film and definitely worth a watch. There are plenty of love stories and crime stories out there, but this is a different take on the combination of the two.