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BOUCHER, LE(director/writer: Claude Chabrol; cinematographer: Jean Rabier; editor: Jacques Gaillard; cast: Stéphane Audran (Helene), Jean Yanne (Popaul), William Guérault (Charles), Roger Rudel (Police Inspector Grumbach), Mario Beccara (Leon Hamel); Runtime: 94; La Boetie/Euro International; 1969-France)
“This is Chabrol at his best.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film opens with Popaul (Yanne), a veteran of 15-years army service, recently returning to his birthplace in the Perigord region to be the town’s butcher upon his father’s death. We see him joyously cutting some slices of meat for the wedding celebration of the teacher, Leon Hamel (Mario Beccara), whose marriage is being celebrated in this small old-fashioned French village. At the wedding, the butcher sits next to the smiling, young and attractive headmistress of Leon’s elementary school, Helene (Stéphane Audran).

Popaul comes a courting Helene, making her an offer she can’t resist. He will personally choose the meat she gets and promises her the best cuts available. Why Popaul is not married can be explained by his army service taking him to remote spots on the globe. He tells her he did not like the service because he saw many terrible things there even though he was only a butcher, it had an awful affect on him.

Helene comes from the city; she said she came here to get away from everybody. The reason is that she loved someone 10 years ago but he abruptly left her, leaving her psychologically scarred and very hurt. Helene found it very easy and gratifying to give all her love to the school children as a substitute. The townspeople consider her to be an excellent teacher. So she lives happily alone and is content with her lot in life.

Soon a murdered old woman is found in the woods, who was not raped. This does not disturb our butcher, who comes by the school offering Helene a leg of lamb as if it were a bouquet. Helene, whose whole life is focused around the school, lives upstairs from the schoolroom. Popaul is respectful, as she chooses to remain friendly but aloof. This strange relationship is bound by a certain chemistry they might have for each other, even though they are very different in temperament and education.

The most memorable scene is when the children are on an outing in the woods and one of the girls is about to bite into her roll when a red spot appears on it, looking much like jam. It turns out to be blood dripping down from a body on the cliff above them. When Helene goes to examine the body, she discovers it’s her colleague’s new bride. She also picks up a cigarette lighter that she gave to the butcher as a birthday present. It is puzzling that she doesn’t tell this to the police detective who questions her. But this is what adds to the flavor of this simple story. The flawed characters are what elevate this film into something other than a straight mystery story, because getting the murderer is not the theme of the film as much as trying to understand something that is complex about human nature.

By now we are familiar with life in the village, we have seen the statue of the soldier in the village square by the schoolhouse; it stands there, as if he was guarding the sacredness of this school and is a symbol of how society ruins its young men with untold wars.

It is hard to figure what is happening internally in the budding relationship between Popaul and Helene, but it is definitely not a sexual one. Perhaps it could be explained from her vantage point that she is curious about him and welcomes his occasional company, but does not want to get emotionally attached.

When the butcher comes over to paint Helene’s house, he notices the lighter and retrieves it. All that’s left for Chabrol to do in order to wrap up the film, is for him to have the butcher come face to face with the mistress he loves and for us to see if redemption through love is possible. It seems that he has been exposed for the first time in his life to someone he can love but since this respectful kind of love has not fulfilled him, it has instead released more demons inside him. Of course it is not clear who is to blame for such horrendous crimes whether it is a father he hated, or society, or just something inside him that snapped. That was pretty much the theme Chabrol used in his first film shot 10 years before this one, Le Beau Serge, which also took place in a rural village. But this time, the theme is more fully developed by a director who has greatly matured.

This is Chabrol at his best, when he is an equal to Hitchcock, spinning an eerie psychological thriller, whose likable characters and the nostalgic village they live in are painted with a master’s elegant brushstrokes. It seems films such as this one, never get dated. I saw it when it first came out and I saw it again on video in the early ’80s, and I just recently saw it again in 1999 at a film festival. It gets better with every viewing. This time I was better able to notice the serene landscape in the background, the magnificent limestone caves, and the casual manner of village life.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”