Backlog #2: Le Boucher (1970)

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.

Backlog #3: Belle de Jour (1967)

This is a cool, composed but mad film. It’s an attack on the middle class and their values – a surgeon’s wife tries to assuage her boredom by becoming a prostitute, through which she successfully satisfies her emotional needs, to the benefit of her marriage but then its ultimate destruction.

It’s fascinating to watch – Severine is so very buttoned up in her emotional life (as is her husband). She only lets on through her actions – she never allows herself to express her feelings at all. Catherine Deneuve is outstanding in this – Severine’s social introversion is perhaps mildly overemphasised, but Deneuve is masterly at bringing out the character’s battle with her timidity and her urges.

Belle de Jour is an attack on love and marriage and its assumptions and clichés: those of keeping face, the ideal of the loving housewife and the strong husband. The title is a key demonstration of this – as part of the pretence Severine only works during the daytime and must return to her deceived husband for his arrival home. As soon as the female finds the courage (or madness) to break out of this social structure, she is in very unfamiliar territory and has to be able to protect herself: unfortunately for Severine, she is unable to do this.

The agent of Severine’s actions in this film is Husson, marvellously conveyed by Michel Piccoli. He is a strikingly suave and charming blackguard, entirely at home in the milleu of the upper bourgeois, like a winning crocodile in velvet. Severine is repelled by him, but he triggers her actions and unfortunately for her, has the complete measure of them.

Belle de Jour has the most logical storyline of the Bunuel films that I watched (although he uses dream sequences and an enigmatic conclusion to effect). It’s the best example of his films in the qualities that typify them: their economy, coolness and the effortless way they challenge and puncture the social, political and clerical structures of our western societies. Heavy stuff, but done with a lightness of touch.

Backlog #4: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Perhaps the classic Bunuel picture, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie follows a group of friends and family as they attempt to dine out, but encounter a series of frustrations, some coincidental, other more illogical and increasingly surreal.

All the time, the group react to all of these unexpected events with annoyance, but they keep their calm demeanour, as if these trials shall not cause them to lose face. The film expands and strange, enigmatic dream sequences appear. These (I remember the one of the solider encountering the ghost of his dead mother in particular) are beautifully shot in an amazingly striking and profound manner; they contrast with the film’s reality of upper middle class folk going about their entitled and privileged ways.

These characters are accustomed to their lives running like clockwork, with their activities and social relations being acted out in an accepted (accustomed) manner – most typically by the dinner party or afternoon tea. Bunuel (as in all of the films that I have previously discussed) challenges this, in a manner that is much more subtle than one would assume. (I) would assume (perhaps from taking my surrealist cues from Monty Python’s Flying Circus) that this society would be attacked from a manically crazy perspective, which would make it seem ridiculous. With Bunuel, most notably The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, this perspective of attack is utilised (in the main) with the dreams, which suggest that the characters anxieties and fears are internalised, that they are conditioned to serenely cope with whatever life comes up with; that underneath the surface everyone has a personal fear or worse a horror to live with.

Bunuel’s films never internalise this, beyond the words and actions of the characters. They all seem to be smooth on the surface, having little in plot and themes. Underneath is where the action is – the scenario and the acting (impassive and expressive at the same time) support where Bunuel wants to cover and set up for attack.

This primary point (surface and depth) is a reason why Bunuel is a great artist. His films, as I mentioned before, do not look like great works a la Citizen Kane; instead they look like ordinary contemporary domestic pictures (this probably means that they shock less in 2015 than was the case in 1972). Watching these films, it is perhaps the contradictions they embody, portray and attack that make them such admirable works.