Thursday, June 25, 2009

Le Boucher

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

Claude Chabrol spends nearly two-thirds of Le Boucher establishing an idyllic country setting, a small rural town, peaceful and quiet, where the lonely, middle-aged schoolteacher Hélène (Stéphane Audran) develops a friendship with the butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne), a veteran haunted by the things he saw in the army. The sun shines brightly, the people are cheerful and friendly, and all seems good in this tranquil little town. The film opens with a wedding, where Hélène and Popaul first meet, sat together by chance and enjoying each other's company amidst the fun, vibrant atmosphere of the wedding. Chabrol maintains his characteristic distance here, observing from a vantage point above the assembled throng of revelers as they drink and dance and laugh and give speeches or sing songs. His camera seems to hover in the rafters of the hall, watching like an ambivalent god as his creations scurry about below; despite the festivities, one always senses Chabrol's removed perspective, and hesitates to take the cheerful surfaces presented here at face value. Indeed, before the film's hour mark, one of these revelers will be dead, and Chabrol will film the funeral from the same distanced vantage point, as many of the same people appear in different circumstances — it's just another ceremony, just another ritual, very much like a wedding.

This darkness is always lurking beneath the surface of Chabrol's work, a subterranean hint of evil and violence buried underneath a thin veneer of civility and social niceties. The relationship between Hélène and Popaul develops hesitantly, with the butcher slowly overcoming the standoffish reserve of the schoolteacher, who was hurt by a passionate love affair many years before, and had been reluctant to love again ever since. Her rapport with Popaul is instant, however, despite his roughness and the occasional hints of darkness that shade his normally cheerful personality whenever his thoughts turn to his wartime experiences. But even as this romance develops in the foreground, innocently and patiently, in the background blood is flowing through this small town. A body is found in the woods, a young girl murdered, sliced up with a knife and dumped among the trees. The police come to investigate, their little black vans racing up and down the village's quaint cobbled streets, their mere presence a reminder of the ugliness that lingers at the fringes of this paradise.

This violent intrusion does not disturb the village's life very much immediately. The police first appear in the background only, walking through the rear of a shot as Hélène's pupils play and laugh in the foreground; no one is aware of the police's presence, and no one knows why they've come. Only the audience sees them and understands that something sinister is brewing, an impression underscored by the dissonant music of Pierre Jansen, who crafts an unsettling score of isolated piano tones and string plucks. This violence exists, initially, offscreen, in the background, and is thus easily ignored by the townspeople, who gossip idly about the murder and speculate about the police investigation. They are offended, but only in the abstract; Chabrol takes the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of bourgeois morals. Popaul is unfazed by the idea of a single murder like this. He compares it to his experiences in war and describes in grisly detail the scenes of corpses strewn everywhere, devoured by maggots, bodies torn apart by bullets and bombs. "We counted corpses by the truckload," he says, but for one of his customers, such horror in war is expected, while the idea of violence infiltrating a little suburb like theirs is unacceptable. "Yes, war is horrible, that's a fact," this man says, prissy and shocked, "but a murder like this, it's barbaric!"

Chabrol's wry humor skewers this perspective, which places no intrinsic value on human life but is merely offended by the loss of the illusion of society and civilization in this one little town. Thousands of faceless corpses in some far-off country are acceptable, as long as no blood flows through the gutters of one's own hometown. Chabrol will not allow these illusions to go unchallenged; he will not allow his characters or his audience to forget the blood that flows everywhere, everyday, in order to maintain the foundations of society. Even the food we eat is born of violence, and Popaul's profession is continually tying together the horrors of violence with the methodical motions of butchery. As Popaul speaks of the slaughtered bodies he saw in the army, he carefully slices up a hunk of raw meat. He speaks of animals often, and when he looks at a live lamb he's already envisioning it chopped up as meat. So when he jokingly calls an old teacher a "cow," it takes on a sinister undercurrent of meaning — does this man think of all live flesh as just a step or two removed from cold dead meat?

Of course, what this is all leading towards is the destabilizing tension of the film's final half-hour, in which Hélène begins to suspect, after a second woman turns up murdered, that Popaul is in fact the killer. This culminates in a harrowing, Hitchcockian suspense sequence where Hélène locks herself in her apartment above the schoolhouse at night, fearing Popaul's return. This masterfully executed sequence has Hélène — and the audience — jumping at shadows, unnerved by such innocent sounds as the creaking of the building and the high-pitched meow of a kitten somewhere in the darkness outside. Popaul's calls, unanswered, are repetitive and frightening, but even worse is the eerie silence that falls when he stops calling and disappears from his place in the courtyard outside. Chabrol proves himself disarmingly efficient at ratcheting up the tension, moving his camera in ways that call attention to the vast amount of space that cannot be seen at any given moment. What's offscreen becomes a black wasteland in which a murderer could be lurking, shrouded in shadows, just outside the enclosure of the frame. Thus every camera move suggests something about to happen: the killer, we suspect, is right where we cannot see him, right in the spot that Chabrol is conspicuously preventing us from seeing.

After all this tension, drawn out until it's nearly unbearable, the actual confrontation between Hélène and Popaul is a deliberate anticlimax, both a fulfillment of audience expectations and a clever subversion of them. This resolution does not answer any questions; indeed, it only opens up deeper, more troubling ones. What is the nature of evil? Is it the man who feels compelled to kill? Or is it the societal structures that created this man, that deadened his moral impulses, that stifled and suppressed the horrified, faint reaction he had as a child when he first saw blood? By toughening him up, making him accept death, did war and a brutal father create a killer drained of morality? If we cease to be horrified by violence, if we cease to be moved morally by the loss of life, can we even feel anything anymore? What does it mean to love in this context? How can we feel any connection to other human beings when life means so little? There are no answers in Chabrol's unsettling finale, only the dead, narcoleptic stare of Hélène, her anesthetized response to the complete destruction of her illusions and dreams.


Sam Juliano said...

This is unquestionably one of Chabrol's greatest films. And in ways it even matches the later LA CEREMONIE for it's chilling resonance. You certainly raise some profound questions in your coda, and yes, Chabrol never gives us an inkling. And yes 'setting' is integral to this film's themes, and beautifully estabished.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice analysis. I agree with you about the effective ratcheting up of suspense, but I was disappointed by the anticlimactic end of this film, even though it does raise the questions you mentioned. The ending does make you wonder how much Helene was responsible for the murders, if only indirectly, but I didn't care much for Popaul's sudden romantic abnegation. He seemed so pleasantly self-sufficient until then.

Ed Howard said...

FilmDr, really, you didn't think Popaul's romantic interest in Helene was built up all along? I thought it was pretty obvious that she represented something special for him, though maybe it didn't have to be made so explicit in the final moments. But I do love the ambiguity of the ending scenes, with Helene almost entirely silent: what is she thinking as she stares so blankly out at the water?

The Film Doctor said...

Yes, of course Popaul shows interest in Helene from early in the film, but he appears to be in control. Then, towards the end, we suddenly learn that he's all twisted and the murders themselves are symptoms of his problem, so that's what I mean by his romantic self-abnegation. He turns into more of the cliche serial killer, with a Freudian tendency to substitute stabbings for eroticism. Even though Chabrol keeps some ambiguity for Helene, Popaul gets more conventional, and I found that disappointing.

Ed Howard said...

Oh, OK, I see what you mean now. You have a point, though it didn't really bother me. What impressed me about the final scenes was the Hitchcockian mood of dread in the suspense build-up, and then Helene's zombified reaction in the aftermath. I'm with you that Popaul's serial killer psychology is the least interesting aspect of the film, though.