"Le Boucher" *** (out of ****)
Claude Chabrol's "Le Boucher" ( The Butcher; 1972) is often considered by sheep (er movie critics) as the best film the great French filmmaker ever made.
I first saw this often called classic several years ago when I was in my early twenties. I had just discovered the work of this brilliant and sometimes neglected filmmaker, referred to as "the French Hitchcock", and at the time I admired the movie. If I am honest with myself, I think I enjoyed it because I felt "pressured" to do so. The American movie critics throw a lot of praise at this film and you will find some in the general public praise it as well, so, I felt a certain "obligation" to like the movie as strongly as others have as well. But, as I watched "Le Boucher" again and being older and less concerned with how my opinions correlate with that of the general public, I find the movie to be lacking.
Claude Chabrol was known for making films which involved murder. His films mainly focused on the bourgeois and tried to expose the friendly, respectable facade they have created for themselves as family secrets were exposed and psychological conflicts were revealed and it usually ended in murder.
He directed what is generally considered the first film in the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) movement, "Le Beau Serge" (1958). He, along with Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, wrote for the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema. With time, as I have already mentioned, he earned the nickname, "the French Hitchcock", though Chabrol felt it was not an apt comparison.
"Le Boucher", like a few of Chabrol's early films ("Le Beau Serge" among them) focuses on the working class. Here we follow a school teacher, Helene (Stephane Audran, whom at one time was married to Chabrol) and a butcher, Paul (Jean Yanne). They both live in a small, quiet town, and as in other Chabrol films, things aren't what they seem. The small town will turn out not to be the idyllic, gentle place its surroundings would have you believe. For that matter, the characters are not as innocent as they appear either.
The movie begins by showing us the good times, a wedding, as we see Helene and Paul meet and strike up a conversation. We learn Paul has been in the army. He has not been back to this small town since his mother died seven years ago. He didn't get along with his father, who was also the town's butcher, now Paul has filled those shoes. We learn very little about Helene. All we know is she has been living in this town for three years and knew Paul's father.
At first "Le Boucher" doesn't seem to be about much. We just follow these characters and suspect perhaps a romance will develop between them. But, this is a Claude Chabrol film. Something has to happen. And that's my problem with "Le Boucher". Not enough happens and it takes too long for something to begin to happen.
We slowly learn one of the townspeople has been murdered. The police have no suspects. The victim was a young woman. The same woman who was married at the beginning of the movie. Next we learn of another murder. The police suspect it was done by the same killer since the deaths were similar.
But, there are only two main characters in "Le Boucher", so, it must be one of them. Paul talks about death a lot. He saw a lot of dead bodies in the army. That has an effect on a man. Helene may be a bit "too good". Is anyone really that perfect and innocent? But, our main suspect is the butcher if for no other good reason then the movie is named after him.
"Le Boucher" is not like your conventional mystery/thriller though. It doesn't slowly build suspense. There isn't a group of suspects. The movie doesn't earn our interest. It is too subtle. It doesn't develop a strong relationship between the audience and the characters. I never felt Chabrol, as a director, was guiding the audience in a certain direction. The movie seems to be about atmosphere and giving the town a sense of personality. There are also undertones of repression. But, it wasn't enough to make me care much about the characters and the situations unfolding.
I have read some claim the strength of the film is Helene. Does she know Paul is the murderer? Is she protecting him? It is an interesting concept but an unwarranted one. This is someone trying to make the movie more important than it is. I feel that way because, at no point is this a "woman in peril" movie. At no point do we feel Helene is in any danger. At no point is this idea suggested that Helene is protecting Paul. I simply look at the movie and take it at face value. There are no "clues" being dropped. The movie spells things out in the last 15 minutes or so of the movie. Prior to that, any evidence that Helene knows more than she is letting on is purely in your mind and was not put there by Chabrol.
It seems to me Chabrol works at his best when he is looking and the rich and powerful and attacks them. When he takes the same approach with the working class, it is not as interesting to me. Working class people aren't hiding as much as the rich. The rich are a better target because they are in a position where they have more to lose because I doubt they became rich by being honest, decent, hard working citizens. Save the fairy tale for someone dumb enough to believe it.
"Le Boucher" is not a bad movie. The ingredients for a great Chabrol film are here but they are not used properly. The performances by Audran and Yanne are effective, I especially like Audran, she was one of Chabrol's great muses. She had a wonderful look for Chabrol's films. She always had a "poker face". You never knew what she was thinking.
For as great as Claude Chabrol was, "Le Boucher" doesn't deserve the reputation it has gained over the years. I firmly believe Chabrol made better films; "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969), "Les Biches" (1968), "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" (2002) and "Wedding in Blood" (1974) among them. "Le Boucher" is kind of a let down after you have seen those movies. "Le Boucher" should be seen. You should see all of the movies directed by Claude Chabrol but "Le Boucher" should not be seen as Chabrol's definitive work. It is a popular minor effort.