It had been sitting there for five months or so, staring me in the face whenever I enter the lounge and sit down on the sofa. “Watch me” it whispered, somewhat malevolently, knowing that I would ignore it and put something else on instead. There was always something else I’d rather watch. Always something else.
It’s easy to forget that it was only around twenty years ago that most of us owned films solely on VHS. Many of the films I owned were recorded off the four TV channels we could receive in the UK at the time, and due to the lack of choice on TV and the long wait for new releases to be shown, I was heavily reliant on going to the cinema or renting videos from a local store. Same as a lot of people.
Today, of course, we are lucky to have a massive selection of movies at our fingertips. I have two films sitting on my phone waiting to be viewed, for example, lest I get stuck in a lift and decide to pass the time by watching Drive again or feel the sudden urge to pull over on the hard shoulder of the motorway to see Animal Farm. (Oh, please. The cartoon version. This is a serious blog, not a den of vice. Except of course on BDSM Tuesdays.) I have 20 or 30 downloaded films sitting on my laptop’s hard drive. There are hundreds of paid for and free TV channels at home, including many that show films 24/7. I’ve recorded about 40 or 50 movies onto the TV’s hard drive to watch at some point in the future. Am I really going to watch Beverley Hills Cop again when I haven’t yet seen Mud, or The Master, or The Act Of Killing, or Silver Linings Playbook, or Lincoln, or Zero Dark Thirty? I subscribe to Netflix, which has an average selection in the UK, although I still seem to have managed to add a total of 85 old classics and new releases to my list of films to plough through at some stage. And then there’s my Lovefilm account, which means I have two DVDs ready to watch at home and a list of 180 films queued up … plus another 50 or so to choose from if I decide to use their streaming service. Oh, and did I mention the DVDs I actually own myself? Or the fact an arthouse cinema just opened near the local multiplex? Or the fact that I still have all those old VHS tapes too?
Now, I’m no mathematician, and I don’t consider myself to be tech savvy – if anything I feel left behind by recent developments in the field of home entertainment – but that basically means if I decide to watch a film this evening I will be able to choose from something between a zillion and a gazillion movies. Which is frankly too much choice, as well as being one of the most nauseating Middle Class Problems I have ever found myself moaning about.
All of which is just a long, very drawn out way of saying that Claude Chabrol’s acclaimed 1970 thriller Le Boucher was sitting on top of the DVD player for around five months, begging me to watch it every night, which I repeatedly refused to do. Now that I have done so I feel extremely foolish for letting it gather dust for so long. It is a fascinating, expertly crafted and meticulously shot film that lingers in the mind long after viewing.
The story is a simple one. Hélène (Stéphane Audran), a young schoolteacher in a small rural French town meets local butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne) at a wedding. Both are weighed down by emotional baggage: Hélène by a failed relationship from ten years earlier, Popaul as a result of abuse suffered at the hands of his father as a child, and a long period of military service, from which he has just returned. The two are attracted to each other, and find much in common, but their meeting coincides with a series of (off-camera) murders of women in the otherwise quiet town. Gradually Hélène begins to suspect Popaul is responsible for the killings, and must face up to the seriousness of the situation.
This suspense-filled film is often described as Hitchcockian, and as there are many elements redolent of Hitchcock’s work on show it’s easy to see why: the detached blonde, the notion of a domineering parent (though it’s a father rather than Hitch’s preferred mother figure), the use of shadow prefixing the tensest moments, the perilous situation that the lead character is put in, another character that apparently cannot be trusted, and so on. But Chabrol’s work is more than mere pastiche and it dispenses with a few cliches of the thriller genre: for example while the killings are taking place there are few suggestions that Popaul has anything to do with them, but the lack of suspects mean he is the only possible person under viewer suspicion. There’s no ‘is-he-isn’t-he?’ nonsense here, or gimmicky twists. Secondly, and this is a bit of an odd thing to say, but it makes a pleasant change to see such a murderous character in a film where his function isn’t solely to kill. If anything, the fact that Popaul is a killer seems of secondary importance; Chabrol’s film appears to place more emphasis on his struggles to convince Hélène to love him, rather than the murders he is carrying out.
Hélène is a fascinating – and subtly drawn – character. Initially fawning over Popaul while he carves a rack of bloody beef at the wedding, she seems drawn to his roughness and his machismo. However as the film progresses she reveals her own toughness, establishing a kind of feminine dominance over Popaul in several scenes. Although she is seemingly in peril through much of the film, she holds a certain power over the butcher whether she is aware of that peril or not. As Roger Ebert noted in his review: ‘As the wedding ends and he walks her home to her rooms above the school, Chabrol gives us a remarkable unbroken shot, three minutes and 46 seconds in duration. They walk through the entire village, past men in cafes and boys at play. She takes out a Gauloise and lights up, and he asks: “You smoke in the street?” She not only smokes, she smokes with an attitude, holding the cigarette in her mouth, Belmondo-style, even while she talks. She is sending a message of female dominance and mystery to Popaul. Later, when he visits her, he sits on a chair that makes him lower than her, like one of her students.’
His fascination with her – and willingness to please – begins to feel vaguely pathetic, particularly in a scene where she is teaching schoolchildren to dance outdoors and brusquely orders Popaul to stand in the background. Despite our awareness that the butcher is a serial killer, there is a sense that Chabrol wants us to pity him, and he ends up looking like a very different kind of victim himself.
Hélène’s motivations are not always obvious, either. When she finds a lighter next to one of the victims which is identical to one she gave Popaul as a present, she hides it, and does not tell the police about it. Why? Perhaps Hélène is in some way getting a kick from the gradual revelation of the killer’s identity, or is turned on by the idea of entering into a relationship with such a brute. Chabrol includes a scene set at the Lascaux caves in which Cro-Magnon man is discussed by the teacher and her party of schoolchildren. She suggests Cro-Magnon man could just as easily be living among us today, while wistfully staring off into space, presumably thinking about Popaul. (Interestingly, the cave’s paintings are used as the film’s title credits.)
Throughout the pair’s meetings, Chabrol uses an array of visual devices that block the two from being able to physically touch each other: windows, walls, objects – all of which serve as metaphors for the psychological blockade that exists between them. The presence of children often hampers any chance of intimacy, presumably to the chagrin of Popaul and the benefit of Hélène, and this constant frustration is what ultimately drives Popaul to kill. Chabrol barely wastes a frame, and a shot-by-shot analysis of the film would surely show an utter perfectionist at work.
It’s a fascinating film, well-acted and given a cold veneer by Chabrol’s long-standing cinematographer Jean Rabier. Audran – who was married to Chabrol between the years of 1964 and 1982 – is responsible for an enigmatic performance that leaves you thinking about her character’s motives and feelings long after you have stopped considering those of the film’s killer, which itself differentiates Le Boucher from many other films about murderers. At the end you are left considering just who the ‘real’ butcher is. I’m glad I finally managed to watch this film.
Directed by: Claude Chabrol
Written by: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Stéphane Audran, Jean Yanne
Running Time: 93 Minutes