Today I watched Claude Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970)
Claude Chabrol is one of the least experimental New Wave film makers but that should not be taken to mean his film’s lack depth in any way. His films are very approachable as pieces of entertainment because the more philosophical musings are made subtle and are deeply embedded in the action. In Le Boucher, Chabrol uses the stylings of a thriller to meditate on the modernization of France and the deeper ills of society through two characters, Popaul the butcher and Hélène the school teacher.
From very early on the audience is made aware of Popaul’s guilt in the proceeding killings, the mystery lies in whether Hélène knows or not. There is an intense sense of ambiguity here, the relationship between the two principle characters is all about questions. The film asks questions relating to the killers motives, maybe he was motivated by his military experiences or perhaps it is the sexual inadequacy he feels coupled with Hélène’s spurning of his romantic advances? The film is very smart about not offering one single, easy answer as to why Popaul is a killer which feels very realistic.
Speaking of realism, Chabrol’s imagery and pacing is very focused on disengaging from the action. The long tracking shots and withdrawn camera create a feeling of objectivity despite the subtle actions on screen informing a much darker interpretation. Because of this I found that Chabrol really captured the feel of the world around the characters, there is a sense of change and modernism, not just in the fact that Hélène is a strongly independent woman, but also in many minor dialogue moments. The film compares this modernity with animalistic savagery by contrasting the two main characters and in a cave painting motif that comes up in the opening credits and then again in one of the most important scenes later in the film.
Is Popaul just an expression of mankind’s savagery or is there something much more contemporary in his murderous urges? This is a film about such questions and explorations of human nature, it is quite dark and relentless in it’s pursuit of an impossibly distant psychological truth. Yet it is also a very watchable thriller, presenting an intense situation that is utterly engrossing. Despite not answering any of the questions it raises, Le Boucher is still a very satisfying film, instead of the revelation of an answer it provides the revelation of deeper questions. 5/5