It was the same with Wanda. Pauline Kael and myself see the surface details of Le Boucher in almost exactly the same way. We note its relatively cool and even surface. Acknowledge its refusal to emotionally engage the viewer. Are puzzled by its lack of suspense. We’re on the same bus and we’ve travelled across the same temperate plain, although our responses to it are extremely different. This is reflected in our interpretations. For Kael the film is an example of a highly skilled technique that has no art; thus she calls this work: “penmanship, not literature”. She argues that Chabrol’s camera is merely a recording device which gives the same attention, what she calls his “unblinking gaze”, to everything it sees; creating a movie that is clever and tasteful but emotionally flat – neither “exciting” nor boring is her Olympian conclusion. She is unhappy. She wishes she were on a different tour, exploring some mountain range, where she can experience exhilaration and vertigo atop every peak and valley edge. She wants off this bus… I watch her say goodbye to the driver; then run down its short few steps…
Pauline Kael is a great critic. She correctly identifies how Chabrol has intellectualised Hitchcock, and accurately describes his intentions.
He provides all the elements for a thriller except the kicker. He seems to cherish the atmospheric elements without quite getting the point of them; Hitchcock used them to prepare us for something. Chabrol makes tone poems on thriller themes… the atmosphere is everything… [H]e is more interested in the personalities involved in murders, and in the ambience, than in the crude simplicities of whodunit and why. (Deeper Into Movies)
Her evaluations are different from mine.
Her eye is fantastic. Her aesthetic sense less so. It is when she interprets and judges these images that Kael goes wrong. Believing the characters lack depth she thinks they have no art; as if all films must be complex psychological studies. She doesn’t like it that the murders are essentially irrelevant to the story. Do they have to be? Must a film always have a gothic plot? Can’t atmosphere be everything? She is a critic whose ideas about movies are far too narrow. Her opinions are therefore dangerous; the canon of European masterpieces not safe in her columns.
Pauline Kael wants action! And she wants to be given good solid reasons why these actions take place. She would like to see a punch in the face, followed by a flattering apology, and an explanation why the hero lost control. These are narrative gifts Chabrol refuses his audience; preferring to ignore our tastes completely. He goes his own way, working out his own obsessions. He is an artist, after all.
By leaving the causation open the director really aggravates her. We must be told why these murders occurred! Even if the explanations are from some dodgy psychologist, selling second-hand Freud. Better a poor reason than no reason at all. No ambiguity please! Pauline Kael, it seems, wants entertainment not art, despite her protestations to the contrary.
The problem is illustrated in the passage I have quoted. Kael has been misled by the plot outline; the thriller aspect of his films often exaggerated because of Chabrol’s own interest in Hitchcock – told the barest details about the movie and informed of his interest in the British director we assume this work will be a French version of the originals. Kael expects Le Boucher to be a psychological thriller and is disappointed when it fails to deliver the conventional excitements. Of course she can see this is the film’s intention; but her preconceived ideas, and her judgemental temperament, coupled with her particular taste, will not allow her to adjust her views. “It is Chabrol who is wrong not me.” Here she behaves like a poor critic - lacking empathetic understanding they are not adept at improvisation.
Le Boucher is not a thriller.i Those who think it is will always find this movie unsatisfying. Forget Hitchcock! and Hollywood. This is art of an essentially pure kind; exploring a theme and giving it a thick texture by using the details most suitable to illustrate it.
Le Boucher is a movie about what happens to ordinary lives when “thriller” elements suddenly intrude into them; but in the background, so that they are hardly affected at all. This is the reason for the characters’ composure and relative indifference. The little emotional variation in the film, and all the other things Kael describes, are because the murders, as in a real life situation, barely touch the people in this provincial town. Both physically and psychologically these killings remain at a distance. Only the schoolteacher’s wife’s demise has a deep effect; and this has more to do with her death than her murder, so that as much attention is paid to the funeral as to the body’s discovery; the two equated in an interesting way: the dead woman rains drops of blood onto the school children; the clouds drop rain onto the funeral cortege outside the local church.
What makes this film astonishing, and contrary to Kael, it is astonishing, is how little affect the murderer has on Hélène. Maybe this is due to her lack of range, but this doesn’t matter, it is irrelevant, for Chabrol has found the ideal actress for this film; which suggests something curious, and true, about the human psyche: its equanimity before the outrageous. Someone may continue to like a person even though they think he is a murderer - because other factors in the relationship offset this revelation; watering it down, until it becomes almost irrelevant. Our idea of a friend so cluttered up with so many other things that we see the person we already know before the killer we never knew existed. This creates a confusion that first produces doubt; a useful emotion for allowing the gradual acceptance of the murderous truth, by which time it is assimilated into our conception of the man – “OK. Maurice might be a murderer but I still like him a lot; he is so intelligent, and funny too; and so gentle when he touches me; he’s like… he’s like a warm breeze between my bare thighs as… as the wind ripples my muslin skirt and…and I feel it, it tickles; my thighs that is... It’s an aberration! It’s not his fault! It doesn’t make his kisses ugly! Leave me alone. Leave me leave me….” Allowances will always be made for those we love.
The usual tensions of this genre are not only neutralised, but have been subtly reversed. Hélène not so much worried by the possibility of Popaul being a killer, as convincing herself that he is not. Paul Kael is right: it is about personalities. If only she could appreciate what this actually means. But she lacks a certain “touch”, and so condemns what she doesn’t feel. This film is lost on her. She has the wrong sensibility to judge it.
With the temperature of the suspense kept low we can observe these characters very clearly; and absorbing the “tone poem” we experience a mundane but revelatory truth: murder can be a trivial occurrence, even for those who are close to it. What a shock! And much more exciting, when we realise it, than some hackneyed cinematic “kicker”, that Kael appears to like so much. And tellingly, she seems to have missed this insight. Given her preconceptions, this should not surprise us. Death and the threat of death are intrinsic to a psychological thriller; it is thus inevitable, if you believe in such a genre, that you come to overvalue their effects. The fabrications of entertainment have replaced the truths of art.
The great critic has forgotten there is life outside the movie house. Chabrol is there now; on the sidewalk, curious as to why the passing crowds are ignoring a little dog who barks too insistently….
[i] Much less insightful that Kael, Peter Graham makes the same mistake:
“Claude Chabrol was by far the most prolific of the New Wave directors and also the first to move into mainstream cinema, with a succession of skilful films, many in the psychological thriller genre… [they] reflect his cynical disgust with the petty bourgeoisie… and a rather jaundiced view of women, whether as schemers… or victims [as in]… Le Boucher. (The Oxford History of World Cinema. My emphasis)
This passage reflects a curiously Marxian strain in this reference book – cinema, particularly mainstream cinema, is believed by many of these contributors (and film study academics generally) to be a site of class or gender (or race or sexual) struggle. No doubt true. But how little such an interpretation says! All life can be interpreted as a struggle in some way – my own against myself, a universal phenomenon. The purpose of art is to encapsulate these general truths in the precise particulars of the individual art object. If you want to study the horrors of capitalism read Marx; although admittedly it is easier to watch Bonny and Clyde.
That Graham’s reading of Le Boucher is absurd is obvious: there is very little meaningful sense in the idea that Hélène is a victim. If you want to stretch a point (until it almost breaks) you could argue she is a victim of the emotional impact of love. However, this has little relation to the genre Graham describes; and I don’t believe this is what he means. And if he did… surely the meaning of victim would lose all value.
At the very least Popaul is as much victim as perpetrator: he doesn’t like what he has become, and he would prefer not to kill people. And having found my social casualty I could then go on and criticise the French action in Algeria; even though this has almost nothing to do with the film. Le Boucher is not about politics. It is not about the middle classes. It is not even about murder. It is about the curious reactions of those who come into contact with a terrible crime. It is art above all else. It is about a small group of individuals. It is about Hélène.