Written and directed by French thriller auteur Claude Chabrol, Le Boucher is in many ways, something of a curio. Is it accurate to define it as a thriller when the murderer is no mystery to the viewer? After all, the film’s main focus is that of the two leads who dominate most of the screen time, Helene (Stephane Audran) and Popaul (Jean Yanne). What is more interesting is the strange, shifting power structures inherent in their relationship, which remains chaste throughout.
The pair are thrown together when sat next to each other in a wedding. The rural landscape of Dordogne is the location, the epitome it would seem of idyllic, sleepy France.
Everyone knows everyone, and there’s a post- hippy era vibe to the town, where kids are allowed to sip champagne and the wedding band are young guys who look like they’d be more suited to playing prog rock.
All seems mellow then. Helene, the impossibly self- contained and glamorous headmistress of the school starts her friendship with Popaul, the local butcher, who is the dark cloud in the town. His every utterance is steeped in psychosis, he has been irrevocably scarred for life by his experience in the army, and isn’t shy about sharing it at every turn. So the laid-back Helene and brooding Popaul seem like a mismatch from the outset.
What Chabrol skilfully masters is in letting the viewers decide the motivations for themselves. Why does the content, attractive Helene, who makes it clear to Popaul that she’s happily single, allow such a creepy, deeply psychologically troubled man into the school, and her life, on such a regular basis?
When a series of local women are murdered, their bodies found in broad daylight (most significantly during a school picnic) only Popaul could be guilty: the glee as he shines his knives; the talk of slitting open bodies as with cattle. He’s clearly a psychopath.
Yet, Helene feels for him. It’s almost like Angela Carter and her reworkings of fairytales, where the heroine beds down with the wolf, or strays from the path because she is fearless. But this is not youthful folly, nor naivete. Helene is deliberately letting a butcher into her life, and the children in her charge. Does she pity him? Clearly. Does she desire him, or is there a darker, more masochistic layer to her?
She speaks of a love affair which soured, but this is the only clue to her inner world. She teaches very young kids Balzac and courtly dances. Popaul by contrast, seems uncouth, uneducated and unyielding. Yet she involves him in activities with the children.
Pierre Jansen’s shards of discordant music plays throughout. It’s used judiciously, like the drops of blood which fall onto the white bread of a sandwich. We do not see the murdered women, we only have the atmosphere and tension of sun-dappled horror. Cherries soaked in brandy take on a new significance too, when Popaul brings them to Helene as a gift, and she, suspecting him, eats them one by one in a panicky gulp. This is the only scene in which her cool is broken.
Popaul has his own demons, obviously. So it seems, does Helene, but they’re forever kept close to her chest.
This film is underrated, but it’s the sheer ambiguity and the restraint which makes it so effective. There are no jump scares here, just the power of unresolved traumas.