Criterion Prediction #111: Le Boucher, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Butcher aka Le Boucher
Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Stephane Audran, Jean Yanne, Mario Beccara, Roger Rudel
Synopsis: A series of brutal murders plagues a small village in Lascaux; newly arrived schoolteacher Helene (Audran) maintains a friendship with Paul (Yanne), a local butcher who may be the culprit.
Critique: If imitation is the best form of flattery, how do we apply that to the films and filmmakers who embody their influences without resorting to imitation?
Claude Chabrol is probably the most Hitchcockian of any director but unlike DePalma or Fincher he tips his hat to the master of suspense with such a delicate, even hand that his superlative inspiration goes unnoticed since it lacks the hyperbolic overtones of other screen artists. Perhaps this rift in cinematic veneration is a result of cultural influence; in America, Hitchcock was beloved as an entertainer but in France he was worshipped as an artist par excellence. What we get with Claude Chabrol is a scrapbook that feels like the best of Hitchcock pared down with aesthetic humility and the reverence of a cineaste.
The Butcher has all the dressings of a whodunit chiller. A small town, a colorful populace menaced by a killer; but Chabrol operates with technical assurance, the characters eschew convention, there’s an air of menace, cynicism and psychological complexity but this mostly bloodless tale is told with such a mature sense of conviction it might be the classiest slasher film ever made.
The Butcher opens with a discordant score by Pierre Jansen, who composed music for nearly twenty of the director’s films. The credits have a manic, scribbly font and the footage is a series of shots from inside the Lascaux Caves. Shortly afterward we’re brought to a celebration, food and confections are prepared for a wedding. The ritual of dining is a recurring indulgence afforded by Chabrol; it’s not a self-indulgent turn, but an illustration of provincial community that dually functions as an expository device for gathering the cast of characters in one setting.
And what could be a better setup for two people to meet than a wedding? The unlikely alliance struck up by Helene and Paul is one of companionship. It’s not sexual or deeply emotional, leaving the mystery of their motivations all the more compelling. Is it hesitation because Helene believes Paul is the killer? Does she assume he’s responsible but feels a need to protect him?
This film engenders many questions but the mechanics are played in a reverse order. Ferreting out the culprit or figuring out who’s going to be the next victim is inconsequential. It’s the veil of tension that lingers in this atmospheric brand of storytelling that is Chabrol’s sly trademark.
The Butcher treads through the psychological motives of its genre but expands on them without the cathartic fetishization that seems to plague so many other filmmakers who don’t seem to mind wallowing in the depravities they allegedly condemn. Much of The Butcher takes place in brightly lit exteriors in rural backdrop; Chabrol’s infusion of suspense in this contrasting environment is a testament to his abilities to discover unexpected creative avenues on his own terms. Chabrol regulars Stephane Audran and Jean Yanne are in top form; there’s a Vertigo moment between their two characters, see if you can spot it.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: There are so many films to Chabrol’s credit, it can be difficult to determine where to go after his first two features, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins (Criterion No. 580 & 581). What followed was a mixture of spy comedies and Bond knock-offs like Code Name: Tiger and The Blue Panther. By the end of the sixties he hit his stride with his provincial thrillers and mysteries. Following The Unfaithful Wife, and This Man Must Die, his 1970 film The Butcher marked his “golden era” that would yield a slew of classics like The Breach, Ten Days Wonder, and The Nada Gang aka Nada.
Aside from the late Henri Langlois and some outspoken fans and critics, Claude Chabrol continues to be eclipsed by his luminaries of the nouvelle vague. It feels like Criterion started to give the late director proper home video kudos in 2013, with Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, but it feels so comparatively limiting with the director’s extensive filmography.
Like several of Chabrol’s films from this period, The Butcher is available on DVD from Pathfinder films. The image is a minor cut above Laserdisc quality and is short in the bonus features department. Cohen Media has a capital on some of Chabrol’s later work, while other titles are available through Amazon Prime.
The bulk of his golden era–This Man Must Die (Criterion Prediction #46), The Breach (aka La Rupture), The Nada Gang (released as Nada), The Unfaithful Wife–are sold by Pathfinder, which doesn’t seem to be doing anyone any favors aside from being a default option, which is better than nothing.