Le Boucher (1970); dir. Claude Chabrol
<Note: This is for the 5th Annual White Elephant Blogathon>
Popaul: “I was fifteen years in the army. So, in the army there’s two things you like because you don’t have them. It’s logic and freedom.”-Le Boucher
Due to my young-ish age, the French New Wave never seemed addressed to me. I get it, or at least I think I do, and I’ve absorbed most of the techniques due to the simple fact that they’ve been exploited and reused to commonplace complacency. But when I sit down to watch movies from these directors who wanted to be considered the de-facto authors of their films, who wanted the world to know what music they listened to, the cinema that shaped them, and the books they read; I just don’t feel like the target audience. The films themselves range wildly in tone from the intensely personal and cathartic (François Truffaut) to centering on the strangely glib and rebellious antics of shallow, childish love-fools (Jean-Luc Godard). The obsessions are largely the same: class and money, across-the-board immaturity, belief in the transformative power of the cinema, frank but tricky sexual relationships, an overwhelming (strangely cynical) romanticism, and (above all) an overt playfulness from the director.
It’s that playfulness that makes me feel left out. And I normally love seeing a movie where it feels like the director is having an actual, direct conversation with me, though more often than not it just turns out to be winking in-jokes with a smirk. Even when a director like, say, Michael Haneke, shows palpable contempt and antagonism for his audience, that still means its directed toward me and I feel puzzlingly special. But the conversation around those New Wave movies seems mostly over. The whole movement was a considerably fertile one for artistic achievement, and the films are justly heralded as some of the best the medium has to offer. Those that saw them in their original runs were certainly affected, and those who were movie-makers mimicked the long takes and jump cuts, the hand-held cameras and revealing close-ups. The mimics became mainstream and the mainstream forgot how to, for the most part, use those tricks effectively. What once seemed personal, even intimate, now has the effect of white noise. Maybe if I had been introduced to these movies when I was younger I’d have a completely different frame of reference. As it stands, seeing Quentin Tarantino obviously have a boatload of fun directing is infectious. But I’m always shamed into feeling like I’m interrupting the Cashiers Crew at church; spitting in their food and pissing on their shoes. Sadly, given my present vantage point of film history, I feel all too aware of what comes next.
Weirdly enough, in Le Boucher, Claude Chabrol seems to sense it, too. A general malaise permeates the film and its characters. The plot, what little there is of it, is fairly straightforward. Popaul (Jean Yanne), the small-town butcher, meets Miss Helene (Stephane Audran, the director’s wife and frequent collaborator), the small-town school headmistress, at another teacher’s wedding, and they hit it off (and who wouldn’t after seeing him minister a silly walk and her elegant tipsy-ness?). Their relationship remains chaste, though Popaul is obviously interested and Miss Helene seems at least amenable to the idea. Popaul is a little too insecure (specifically asking what would happen if he kissed Miss Helene, instead of just doing it) and Miss Helene is guilty of all kinds of mixed signals (she makes him dinner, they go to the movies, she buys him a lighter as a gift, but tells him firmly that he shouldn’t kiss her). All around them, the countryside village goes on with its day to day activities. And a serial killer is targeting blond women.
I’m assuming they’re all blond because Miss Helene is blond. We only actually see one victim (blond), and only later do we learn that its the wife of the teacher from the beginning, and even then only in passing. In what I assume is an intentionally humorous inversion of a normal thriller, all the killing happens off-screen (even one crucial bit of end-time violence happens in complete darkness [and switches P.O.V.!] leaving the viewer wondering for a moment who exactly did what to whom) and the lead investigator sent in from the city mostly spends his time driving or walking around in the background of scenes. One of the few times he speaks, he simply points out his consternation over none of the women being raped. The movie is completely spent on Miss Helene, alone or with Popaul, and what they know about each other. And what we know about them.
Popaul seems like a nice enough guy, if a tad broken. He took over the butcher shop after his father (who Popaul makes clear was not such a nice guy) ten years ago. Before that, he wasn’t in town, he was in the army fighting wars in Algiers and the Phillipines. Popaul, like so many veterans before him, doesn’t seem to want to talk about the war, and yet can’t stop talking about it. Numerous times throughout the film, he graphically describes the death and brutality he witnessed unprompted. No one says anything. At times, he seems to realize how inappropriate these one-sided conversations make people, but throws himself right back into it again. This would also seem intentionally humorous if it wasn’t so sad.
Miss Helene is pretty broken herself. She speaks of a love affair in the past that ended poorly. It’s been years, but she still hasn’t moved on. She’s pretty good at noticing things, as she buys the always matches-less Popaul a lighter, so we have to assume she’s aware that she’s fostering crushes from not just Popaul, but a young student. She’s new to the village, she’s young to be a headmistress, she smokes in the street (which apparently is pretty risque), and she lives alone above the school. When she comes home, she constantly opens and closes various windows and doors, walking in and out of rooms, and lighting cigarettes. She’s a woman who feels uncomfortable, but hasn’t quite figured out what to change. And when she sees a familiar lighter next to a new body, she decides to hide it.
The motivations of both characters are kept pretty below the surface, but Chabrol seems to believe that in some way this has happened before and will happen again. The entire town shows up for the first scene’s wedding (and even cajole a local honeyed-throated man to sing), which they probably do for every wedding (and probably with the same cajoling). Every day, people buy their baguettes and little old ladies buy their hamburger. Instead of paying for things, everyone has tabs. People have always fallen in love, and the baker has always made a croquembouche for the big day. Papaul’s school desk is even still there. Not much, aside from superficial changes, seems to be any different from a hundred years ago. When Miss Helene reads from Balzac and describes The Way They Lived Then, the class giggles when a character is named “Helene” also, as if they can’t tell the difference and somehow all Helene’s are the same. Maybe they are. Once a year (Bastille Day?), everyone goes to the costumer and put on wigs, dresses, and tails as if in the court of Louis XVI and have a dance. Even the children know the old dances. As a sort of button on film obsession, Alfred Hitchcock’s quirks pop up again and again; during the celebration Popaul stares at the back of Miss Helen’s head and her beautiful blond hair.
Even if its sensational, there’s always been murder, too. Every day, Popaul slaughters animals. But before that, he was in war. And before that, humans were in other wars. And before that, there was jealousy and anger. One day, he brings a choice leg of lamb to Miss Helene at the school. Its funny, because of how its wrapped and the way he holds it, it looks more like a bouquet of roses than a bloody stump. But before men brought flowers to court ladies, they probably just brought meat. Outside of town are the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings, which play over the opening credits in a montage. And, like those ancient painters, Popaul offers Miss Helene blood and mushrooms (he has a “nose” for gathering) to woo her. He even offers to paint her apartment, but instead of rhinos, bison, and deer, he simply paints it all white. Eventually, he reveals himself to Miss Helene (and us) and even gets the kiss he so desires. Miss Helene stays a mystery, though, and we are left as confused and dumbfounded by her as Popaul. A woman that, for so much of the movie, kept her eyes closed, now seems to be unable to do anything but stare straight ahead forever.
In one scene, Miss Helene takes the schoolchildren to the caves and one asks what would happen if a Cro-Magnon was around today. Miss Helene thinks he’d learn to adapt and live among us or die. Another thinks he would be nice. Those both seem reasonably plausible.