What holds the story together is not the mechanics of the plot but the consistency of the psychology; the movement and play of the central character’s psyche is what gives this film its meaning. This far outweighs the killings themselves: a kiss, a smile, a quotation from Stendhal, will have more significance for the heroine than a dead girl in a neighbouring town of whom she has never heard. Indeed, a murder may have no meaning at all for a woman who is concerned with other things – it is too emotionally distant to interest her.
It is the mind that gives a human life its structure, and which determines the meaning of what it encounters; so that even the most notorious events will fail to register with a person who doesn’t think about them. Thus an act of murder may have less impact than the friendly disposition of the murderer whom we know well. A personal attachment shapes our views which then helps us reason away those actions that appear to contradict them; our minds, prone to tidy up the messy illogic that permeates our experiences by using past ideas to mould current impressions, is like a cleaner who uses an old brush to sweep away the new rubbish. The consequence is that our habitual feelings are more powerful than the sudden revelation of a friend’s uncharacteristic behaviour, and have a tendency to override it. For once we form our opinions we can find it very difficult to change them. At the very least our preferences cause us to doubt the evidence, even (especially?) if we have been told they have committed some terrible deed.
Most obviously we accept as natural the work of soldiers who kill their enemies. If they are on our side, or are our relatives or friends, they are not condemned for these killings, so that a repellent aspect of human behaviour is reasoned away as normal activity, the killer now a victim of circumstance. A soldier being both a person and a role we are able to separate out his acts from his personality; and so accept, as Hélène accepts, that it is ok for a man she likes to kill other people.
This is nicely captured in the butcher’s shop when one of the customers disagrees with Popaul about the local murders: “This is savagery”, the man says, “it is not like in a war where you only kill out of necessity.” The butcher disagrees: “all dead meat is the same”, he replies, “no matter how you cut it up.”
It seems odd to compare, as many do, Chabrol with Hitchcock for whom the plot was always central to the story and which he used to delineate character; and where a murder would never have the tacked on, contingent feel as it does in this work. The crime in a Hitchcock film is an essential part of the narrative, which focuses our attention on the neuroses of either the victim or the perpetrator (sometimes, as in Marnie, they are the same person); the tensions of the plot squeezing the psyche into ever greater pain and dysfunctional behaviour until the inevitable release after the moment of crisis, when the memory is unlocked and the victim is led out of their damaged past into psychological safety. Only in Vertigo did this formula change: Freud for once is completely undermined as Scottie causes the heroine's destruction by uncovering the truth, for by acting out a death he recreates it. A warning ahead of its time.
In particularly the early parts of this film there is clear distinction between foreground and background:
- At the wedding scene we stare over the backs of the band who stand between us and the guests.
- The first time we see the police they are far into the distance, while hens peck at the ground close to the camera.
- When children are playing in the schoolyard we see policemen walking behind them on the other side of the rear wall.
- Popaul, and Hélène especially, are often highlighted against the town, which occasionally dissolves into soft focus.
This contrast is represented in the plot: all the murders occur away from the camera; and all except one, the death of the teacher’s wife, are treated as simple “newspaper” stories in the lives of the local population. They are tales of horror that give some pleasure to inhabitants of this quiet provincial town where nothing much happens; the conversation rehearsing the same old topics day after day after day after day; Pierre’s complaint about his bad back as regular as the postman. They like the excitement, staid existences need a little frisson, although of course they would never admit it – expressions of moral outrage are often mistaken for morality. Thus these strange deaths are something new to talk about; a source of entertainment providing they don’t occur in the immediate vicinity. It is one reason why the death of the teacher’s wife is such a shock: fiction is turned into reality and background suddenly becomes foreground, although typically with Chabrol not for long.
The one dead body we are shown does have significance; for it alerts Hélène to the identity of the killer - she finds a familiar lighter at the crime scene. This discovery seems to unsettle her more than the death itself. Very quickly, however, Hélène’s reaction ceases to be the focus of our attention as the interest shifts to the town and we witness the affects of the murder upon it - the dead woman is the wife of her colleague, and they were married in the opening scene. Hélène’s unease now becomes part of a wider texture of sadness and fear that exists amongst the local population. This forestalls the suspense we had been led to expect, although Hélène remains on edge, and she is uncomfortable in Popaul’s presence when he visits her home (with a disarming but odd present of a jar of cherries pickled in brandy – the associations are obvious).
Chabrol is playing with a different range of emotions to Hitchcock – his palette has softer and paler colours. There is very little melodrama in this film. Thus after her discovery Hélène is self-conscious, and she is on edge, but she is not scared when in Popaul’s company, whose presence now makes her a little stiff and formal; her feelings perfectly caught by her initial reaction when he calls: a momentary delay, of seconds only, before she opens the door to him. She is wary, and unsure about what to think; and psychologically this is surely correct; for although the facts seem overwhelming they are only circumstantial, and are offset by Popaul’s ebullient personality – he doesn’t look like the madman who the police say committed these murders (premeditated and cold blooded acts, they insist, that were not done out of an uncontrollable sexual or violent rage). She is conflicted! In Hélène’s consciousness there now exist two separate clusters of highly impressionable concrete facts which appear to cancel each other out – the lighter at the crime scene against Popaul’s “normal” character. And she likes him, which makes all the difference. So of course she will wait, it is the nature of her own personality to remain detached, before she commits herself to his exposure.
She is more jumpy when the police arrive. And this is natural, for there is something unsettling about a strange official: they exude an atmosphere that can make us feel guilty. And what could induce more guilt than the decision not to inform the authorities about a potential murder suspect? This is nicely captured in the scene with the Parisian detective who constantly waves his lighter around as he talks to Hélène; thus making her highly self-conscious and therefore uneasy. It is a comically true image, which both increases her discomfort and offers us a visual metaphor for the turmoil inside her head.
Only after the fourth murder does the suspense start, but this does not last long (if even at all). We are aware of Hélène’s own anxiety but experience little suspense at the danger she faces; because Chabrol isn’t interested in engaging the audience with the plot, preferring us to remain the detached observer.i
Hélène is the head mistress of the town’s one school. She is beautiful, intelligent, nice, and also very cool. Everyone loves her. Although she is difficult to approach; neatly symbolised by her flat at the top of the school building. At the wedding reception the camera picks her out, and we are aware of her restraint amongst the drunken debauchery. She is different from everyone around her. An angel amongst rustics. Little wonder that Popaul, recently returned to the town after 15 years in the army, is attracted to her; but not having made a pass he hasn’t received a rebuff, unlike the rest of the local males.
The wedding party helps him: even Hélène lets herself go a little, drinking just a tad too much.
Popaul also has the attraction of novelty, and the self-assurance to penetrate her composure; he is used to seducing women.
It is obvious she likes him.
They go out mushroom picking with some of the children. Both dressed, strangely, in the same colours…ii Popaul makes his play for Hélène by trying to surprise her: he doesn’t ask if she has a lover but why there isn’t one. Her reply is very simple: “Ten years ago I was desperately in love, and he left me; and this made me ill. I don’t want that to happen again. I am happy now, and do not need anything else.” So cool! The fence is up, and the gate is shut, and Popaul must remain outside her quiet, pretty and very orderly garden. This is a theme that runs throughout the movie. In an earlier scene Popaul is surprised when she invites him to dinner at her flat; for he assumes it is a prelude to greater intimacy. Wrong! She is in complete control of herself, and needs no artificial boundaries (dinners in public rather than private places) to help her keep men at a distance. He could have been a woman or an old colleague – it is simply a polite invitation to a friend.
The walls of her flat are covered in reproductions of paintings. Behind her bed there is a collage of classic prints. They are very noticeable. And suggest something about her character: Hélène is a work of art. She is a perfect object that is complete within itself. Created years before she is now a flawlessly finished product; acquired by the town for their edification and her own display – Hélène is an excellent teacher and head mistress.
Hélène is not Marnie. Her sexual coolness is not a sign of repressed neuroses. She is well balanced, happy and free; and doing what she desires – teaching children to achieve their best. She doesn’t need the madness of love, and so lives a controlled and meaningful life, using her talents and composure to instil the joys of civilisation into her students. She reads Balzac about the grandeur of man; and finds in the Lascaux caves the essence of humanity, which, she says, is to aspire to greater things. Hélène is the personification of civilisation; a profound synthesis that can only exist when it is free of turbulent emotion.
Popaul is Cro-Magnon man. He is a butcher who seems indifferent to human suffering - other people are just animals for him. Thus when talking about the local murders he reminisces about his old army days and seems strangely insouciant when he mentions the cartloads of corpses he once saw – for him war is a simply another kind of abattoir. “Humanity”, he says, “is just one more piece of meat.” He is Hélène’s complete opposite. He is uncivilised. When he visits the school Popaul recalls his old teacher by ridiculing her surname; he thus lowers the tone, which Hélène quietly forgives; it shows that she likes him and that he is beginning to get inside that well-tended garden; symbolised by the meat he brings into the classroom - he has brought the atmosphere of the butcher’s shop into her workplace and sanctuary. Although Popaul has no affective affinity with the human race he is clearly attracted to Hélène, who has a quality to which the more sensitive side of his nature responds.
And she likes him. It is obvious he has began to disturb her…
When she discovers that the lighter (at the crime scene) does not belong to Popaul – he lights a cigarette with the one she gave him as a present – Hélène breaks down and cries. Her relief has made her vulnerable. It is the first real sign of incipient love, and is the greatest threat that Popaul poses for Hélène, for whom love is dangerous; its consummation can only destroy the equanimity she needs to live a well-balanced life. Better for her if Popaul were the killer; for then he would pose her no risk, and she would remain the beautiful, capable and contented headmistress she and everyone else wants her to be. It seems Hélène will not have such luck.
The film moves on. The tensions are resolved, and the relationship appears to have resumed its previous calm. This peace is then punctuated by another murder. This time Hélène is very much on edge, and cannot relax until she has locked all the doors and windows to her flat and schoolrooms. It is the first time she has been so nervous; Hélène now certain she knows the killer’s identity, and that he lives in the town. Hitchcock would almost certainly have stretched this tension out. Chabrol seems uninterested in it; preferring to quickly resolve matters in a brilliant couple of scenes.
The murderer is in love with Hélène, but his love is an ethereal one: he looks up to her as a superior being. These feelings are in complete contrast to the disgust he feels about himself. Cro-Magnon man aspires to be human! He makes a confession: the killings are a nightmare from which he cannot escape; forced to commit them by his own evil urges. It feels right that there is no explanation; though we wonder if they started when he first met Hélène. Is there a relation between a repressed sexual urge and this non-sexual violence? For previously when they talked Popaul spoke about the safety value of sex, and its role in releasing emotional pressure. Denied Hélène’s bed has his sexual desire been transformed into calculated murder? Hitchcock, I believe, would have said yes, and said so emphatically. Chabrol’s view is not so clear. We are not sure why he kills these people, because we are never told if Popaul committed any murders before he returned to the town. If a murderer before he fell for Hélène then these acts spring out of a primal urge, and are a natural part of his personality, a reflexive continuation of his previous role as a soldier; the killings in the army a habit carried over into civilian life, which is the explanation he gives for his actions. The butcher is an animal, and behaves like one, and there is nothing anyone can do. So dark!
Throughout the final scenes Hélène remains beautiful - becomes, perhaps, even more beautiful -, which the camera captures in a series of still shots, which are like a succession of portraits. Even during the car drive, where she again breaks down - Popaul dying beside her is going on and on about blood and how it all smells the same -, she retains her beauty. Despite everything it seems she will keep her head together. So cool!
At the hospital she makes a mistake, her only one in the film: on his request she kisses the butcher who is on the verge of death. It is his absolution. Afterwards he is taken to the operating theatre, and we follow the light on the lift panel until it goes out – Popaul has died.
Cro-Magnon man is dead. But civilisation is soon to follow him…
Hélène leaves the hospital, and later we see her sitting in front of her car’s headlights, staring into the darkness at the river’s edge. It is night, then dawn, then morning. She doesn’t move. She is a statue. The camera then swiftly cuts to the other side of the river, which now seems enormous and very choppy, even dangerous. The atmosphere of the scene has suddenly become quite murky. We no longer see the car or Hélène. Has she jumped in? It doesn’t matter. She is in love again, and this has destroyed her equanimity. The serene beauty of those first images, where from high above we saw the flat mirrored river set harmoniously within this pretty plain, has been replaced by a close up and low down view of turbulent waters, ready to carry everything away.
Hélène has lost her serenity. Love has carved up her life; and chopped it into bloody pieces.
(Review of Le Boucher)
[i] This seems to me to be the biggest difference between Hitchcock and Chabrol; the former was interested in the extreme and the unusual, the latter in the banal and ordinary; the French director keen to show us how we normalise even the most shocking of experiences. It suggests the influence of Cahiers du Cinema, and their tendency to intellectualise particularly the Hollywood films they revered.
[ii] The film generally is very well shot, with a close attention to the colours; which is well brought out in the wedding party and the funeral procession; where the variety of colours is merged into an overall feeling of monochrome; the latter suggesting the atmosphere of the scene.