I watched this film late on a Saturday evening – the perfect time for it (perhaps for most of the Chabrol films that I’ve watched). It’s a double-hander that features the two most prominent stars of this series of films (with the exception of Michel Bouquet) – an unusual thriller encompassing crime and psychology: murder and emotion.
Its setting is within a village community in the south-west of France – the idyllic rural paradise. This is emphasised by the opening scene, a beautiful and charming wedding reception – France within its institutionalised bucolic fantasy. With this setting established, the two lead characterizations are further institutionalised roles: the butcher and the school teacher.
The dynamic is immediately obvious. Both are single, well into their thirties and superficially at least, suited for romance together. Helene (as Stephane Audran’s characters tend to be called in these films) is as calm and classy as ever, but her life (her emotional life) is defined by her work, which is the care of her pupils – whatever she goes for, we won’t know and she won’t even admit to herself – she has chosen to pass on emotional fulfilment and distracts herself with living around the schoolhouse.
Paul is a more straightforward character. A squaddie who served in Indochina, he is a bluff, butch and straightforward figure, settled as the village butcher. In this role he interacts with the community and fits in, but similarly to Helene, he is without an emotional centre. With Helene, this manifests itself as emotional coldness, with Paul he is emotionally unstable (no doubt affected by the horrors of war).
Their meeting at the wedding kicks this off. They are a suitable match, but her reserve keeps the relationship at the platonic level. This leads him to a series of brutal murders. Helene is horrified but keeps her cool; eventually the killer and his object finally face each other.
As with all the other films, Le Boucher is deliciously ambivalent and enigmatic. We’re presented with two differently self-indulgent personalities. And it’s Paul, the literal and figurative butcher, who ultimately we’re encouraged to sympathise for, in his screamingly emotional torment. Whilst the admirably composed schoolteacher, we realise is in reality not as unimpeachable as her behaviour was designed (innocently or not) to encourage. Chabrol is so so good at this, he really knows how to explore our inner and outer selves and string it out brilliantly.