Thursday, February 28, 2008
I recently caught back up with Claude Chabrol’s 1970 feature Le Boucher (The Butcher), a film often considered among the great directors finest but one that has never been one of my favorites. While I still wouldn’t rank the film among my desert island Chabrol flics, it is still very obviously the work of a master in his prime and I find that my appreciation for it has grown since my first viewing about a decade ago.
Le Boucher is a remarkably stark and cold film that is less a murder mystery and more of a celebration of Chabrol’s unbelievably composed and skilled camerawork. The plot, from a screenplay and story by Chabrol, is a relatively simple one. A teacher named Helene, played by the wonderful Stephane Audran, meets and begins to get involved with a local butcher named Popaul, Jean Yanne in an absolutely chilling performance, in the midst of a series of murders being committed in their small French community.
The identity of the murderer is more than easy to figure out so the film doesn’t really work as a murder mystery, but I don’t think Chabrol was aiming for that. Instead he is more interested in a compelling and rather obsessive character study of two people who have in very distinct ways lost themselves.
As played by the unnerving Audren, there is something wrong with Helene that isn’t immediately apparent. She lives alone in a small flat surrounded by her favorite paintings and little gifts from her children at school. When we first meet her she is composed and laughing but something is damaged in her. Halfway through the film we find that she was hurt in a relationship years before and has placed herself in self contained exile essentially cut off from the world.
Similarly the butcher Popaul has also been damaged, first by a cold and abusive father and then by many years in the war. As inhabited by Yanne, our title character is a haunted and angry soul who is going through life looking in from the outside (something Chabrol shows wonderfully by placing him looking through windows and glass doors throughout the film). One feels that Popaul was once a good man but, unlike Helene, he has given up completely on the world and has slipped too far into his own isolated existence.
Chabrol’s film is possibly one of the loneliest I have ever seen. With the exception of a party sequence at the beginning and the scenes with the children, the film is made up entirely of characters alone in the frame or separated by some sort of invisible barrier. Even when Helene and Popaul do begin to get close there is always a distance between them. One remarkable moment has Popaul attempting to break the barrier by asking what Helene would do if he kissed her. She responds, “Nothing…but I would prefer you didn’t.”
The film’s strongest moments come in the several long, and rather astonishing, long one shots with Audran and Yanne talking together. At times tender but always with a slight sinister edge, these scenes typify everything that makes Chabrol one of the most intelligent and well organized directors on the planet. I was particularly floored this time by an early conversation that takes place in one shot as the two are walking through the town. Centered in the frame, with the town’s rustic and quant state surrounding them, the sequence is a model on how to do a long and meditative take. It also doesn’t hurt that Chabrol has two absolute masters at the art of body language at his disposal, with both Audran and Yanne seemingly able to communicate the most serious of matters without saying a word.
Chabrol was at the top of his game in 1970. He had just wrapped up three of his finest films, Les Biches (1968), This Man Must Die (1969) and La Femme Infidele (1969), and Le Boucher is looked upon by many as one of if not his greatest production. While I prefer both Les Biches and its follow-up, La Rupture (1970) I must say that this recent reviewing finally showed me what all the fuss was about. I focused away from then rather slight mystery and honed into Chabrol’s directorial choices and was continually surprised and at times quite blown away.
Le Boucher is one of the most economical productions Chabrol has ever delivered, and I don’t necessarily mean in cost. His shots are so meticulously chosen and composed that I would find it hard to believe much was left on the cutting room floor. I, of course, could be wrong but there is almost something mathematical feeling about the precision that Chabrol displays here, as if a mistaken close up or wrong move by one of the actors would throw the whole film off. Pauline Kael called it a perfect film in her original 1970 review and I don’t think she was far off.
Along with Audran, Chabrol fans will recognize several names that often pop up in his films. The creepy minimalist score is courtesy of Pierre Jansen and his music is so identifiable with many of Chabrol’s greatest films that I sometimes have trouble imagining them apart. The master director is also joined by his frequent cinematographer Jean Rabier, who gives this film a wonderfully sun drenched but iced over look, and editor Jacques Gaillard. Nearly all of the small cast had worked and would continue to work with the great director after, or not at all.
Le Boucher is still not among my favorite Chabrol films. I find it’s coldness nearly overwhelming and have felt almost relief when it ends each time I have watched it. It is an absolutely brilliant film, but one of the most oppressive Chabrol ever shot. I suspect my admiration will continue to grow for it, although I think it will have to be awhile before I visit with it again.
The film is out her on DVD from Pathfinder as a stand alone disc or as part of their Claude Chabrol Collection. The disc is disappointing with an overly digitized picture and rather drab and jittery transfer. Extras include the trailer and a disappointing commentary track from two screenwriters not connected to the film or period. It plays widescreen on my player but I have read the disc is authored incorrectly and will only play fullscreen on others. I have heard the Region 2 disc offers a superior transfer but I don’t have it, so can’t say for sure.