Le Boucher ( The Butcher 1970)

She is a school mistress, he is a butcher, their everyday lives obscure great loneliness, and their ideas about sex are peculiarly skewed. They should never have met each other. When they do start to spend time together, their relationship seems ordinary and uneventful, but it sets terrible engines at work in the hiding places of their beings.


Claude Chabrol's "Le Boucher"  takes place in the tranquil French village of Tremolat, and like almost all of his films, begins and ends with a shot of a river, and includes at least one meal. It seems a pleasant district, if it were not for the ominous stirrings and sudden hard chords on the soundtrack. It is a movie in which three victims are carved up offscreen, but the only violence visible to us is psychic, and deals with the characters' twists and needs.

There is no great mystery about the identity of the killer; it must be Popaul the butcher, because no other plausible suspects are brought onscreen.  We know it, the butcher knows it, and at some point, Miss Helene, the school mistress, certainly knows it. Is it when she finds the cigarette lighter he dropped, or does she begin to suspect even earlier?

The movie's suspense involves the haunting dance that the two characters perform around the fact of the butcher's guilt. Will he kill her, too? Does she want to be killed? No, not at all, but perhaps she wants to get teasingly close to being killed; perhaps she is fascinated by the butcher's savagery.
Miss Helene has been in Tremolat for three years. She has never married; 10 years before, she had an unhappy affair, and has decided to do without men. He can talk of little but his 15 years in the French Army. He served in Algiers and Indochina, and he hints of indescribable brutality that he witnessed. He brings her a joint of lamb, wrapped in tissue like a bouquet, and they spend time together. 
News arrives from day to day about bodies found in the woods, and the police are everywhere. On the day of the trip to the caves, Miss Helene and her students rest on a ledge to eat their lunches, and a drop of blood falls on one little girl's bread. It is the blood of the latest victim -- the bride in the opening scene.As she discovers the body, Miss Helene also finds a distinctive lighter she has given Popaul. 
So much goes unsaid between these two people. So much is guessed or hinted. They're a pair, all right, and she senses it at the wedding feast. They don't fit in any ordinary romantic or matrimonial way, but what happens in this movie happens because of them as a couple. If you bring enough empathy to her character, you can read that final scene more deeply. It is a sex scene. They don't touch, but then they never did.
Chabrol, born in 1930, was like Godard and Truffaut a movie critic writing for Cahiers du Cinema, the voice of the auteur movement. He has outlasted many of his contemporaries and outproduced all of them, making more than 50 films. His good or great films make a long list, which should include four collaborations with Isabelle Huppert: "Violette Noziere" (1978), "Madame Bovary" (1991), "La Ceremonie" (1995), "Merci Pour Le Chocolat." Her face, like Audran's, is capable of maddening passivity -- a mask for ominous and alarming thoughts. Both actresses have that rare ability to compel us to wonder what in the hell they are thinking.

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