screened Wednesday March 6 2008 on Pathfinder DVD in Weehawken NJ
Arguably the most celebrated of Chabrol’s fifty-plus features is this romantic drama involving a rough but earnest butcher (Jean Yanne) and a lovely but aloof schoolmistress (Stephane Audran) amidst a series of unsolved murders afflicting their idyllic French village. I confess that I have fundamental reservations with a plot that has the viewer more concerned with the emotional claustrophobia of its two leads than with the innocent victims who serve as collateral damage for the unraveling of their relationship. But full credit goes to Chabrol for brilliantly employing a beguiling documentary realism that initiates the viewer in the comfortably unassuming atmosphere of the small town, shifting almost imperceptibly into a wildly expressive and emotional climax. As much as I laud Chabrol’s use of narrative omission to nudge the viewer into active interpretation of events (most brilliantly dramatized in a four minute single take conversation between the leads that subtly exposes a world of irreconcilability underneath their convivial exchange), I am inclined to think that Chabrol errs a shade too much on the side of restraint – the emotional subtexts between them are established with such vague inference that the issues of affection, trust and interpersonal responsibility that emerge can be extrapolated into any number of competing interpretations. By the end, the film literally settles into an artful haze.
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Le boucher is an early and splendid example of the kind of gentle but engrossing thriller which would become the mainstay of Claude Chabrol’s film work. The director’s skills are very much in evidence in this film. The film begins with a charming and perceptive portrayal of provincial life, reminiscent of scenes from Chabrol’s earlier film, Le beau Serge. But then, as in many of Chabrol’s thrillers, the darker side of human nature begins to intrude, first very gradually, before making a spectacular and gripping entrance in the last twenty or so minutes of the film. The shift in mood from the normality of everyday life to the horror of an unfolding nightmare is brilliantly achieved in this film. The tension gradually increases, following Helène’s growing suspicions about Popaul, towards an unbearably suspense-filled climax.
- James Travers, Films de France
They make an odd but immensely appealing pair as he courts her with specially cut legs of lamb and as she draws him into her life by having him join her on mushroom hunts and as a participant in a school fete, for which she teaches the butcher an 18th-century court dance (one of the movie’s most touching moments). On one excursion to the country, he asks her how she can do without a lover. “There are other ways,” she answers. “Disgusting,” says the butcher, and she laughs. Later he wonders what she would do if he tried to kiss her. “Nothing,” she answers, adding, in a way that is both vulnerable and absolutely chilling, “but I wish you wouldn’t.”
I’m not sure that “Le Boucher” works for me on the level of psychological realism. I find it impossible to accept the suggestion that Chabrol ultimately makes, that is, that Mile. Hélène could have saved the psychotic killer from himself had she not been afraid to love, and that, by withholding her love, she is in some way as much of a beast as he is, fit to be condemned to eternal loneliness.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, September 14, 1970
“Le Boucher” has us always thinking. What do they know, what do they think, what do they want? The film builds to an emotional and physical climax which I will not describe, except to urge you to pay particular attention to a sequence toward the end where Chabrol cuts from her face to his. Popaul’s face shows desperate devotion and need. What does her face show? Is it triumph? Pity? Fear? A kind of sexual fulfillment? Interpret that expression, and you have the key to her feeling. It sure isn’t concern.
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times Great Movies page
Claude Chabrol crafts a taut and poignant tale of emotional damage in Le Boucher. Symbolically, the relational distance between Helene and Popaul is suggested through windows (as in Kieslowski’s Red): Helene looks out from her studio above the school after their first encounter, Popaul looks into Helene’s classroom, delivering a fresh cut of veal from the butcher shop, Popaul peers through the window of an unlit room in search of Helene. Furthermore, Popaul’s preference for a lowered, student’s chair in the studio also reflects Helene’s unattainability for him, as he shyly looks up to see her face, trying to find connection in her polite countenance. Le Boucher is a subtly haunting portrait of people who are incapable of exorcising their own private demons – inflicting emotional violence behind a facade of civility – and, in the process, destroy themselves.
If adapted by Hollywood, ”Le Boucher” would probably have been reduced to a lurid, screaming stalker film. In Mr. Chabrol’s hands, the story becomes a study of two poles of human behavior drawn into a dance in which each person, from a distance, recognizes the truth of the other and aspires toward a wholeness that is impossible to achieve because the gulf separating them is so enormous. The crux of the story hinges on an archeological field trip the teacher takes with her students. Moments before discovering the body of a murdered girl, she tells the class that none of them would be here had Cro-Magnon man not come first.
- Stephen Holden, The New York Times
Le Boucher is a subtle network of shifting emotions, of changing moods, and of psychological insights, expressed to a rare degree of perfection. The remarkable integration of form and meaning in the film is an eloquent testimony to the value of Chabrol’s policy of working closely with a regular production team. His moving portrayal of the psychopath is based in a compassionate desire to understand, and must rank alongside such studies as Lang’s M in its penetration and humanity. Although the psychologically disturbed character is the subject of later films Chabrol has yet to emulate the perfection achieved in Le Boucher.
—R.F. Cousins, Film Reference.com
Its greatness, however, has little to do with the narrative per se, but instead with an attention to detail which carries a palpable unease no matter the twists and turns of the plot. When Chabrol states there are no big or small subjects for his films (Movies of the Sixties, Orbis, 1984), it’s an awareness that sociological importance is at least as significant as the apparently large subject of murder. Charles Thomas Samuels, in “Sightings: Hitchcock” (American Scholar, Spring 1970), has said of cinema’s suspense maestro that “Hitchcock’s films are peopled by mere containers of stress, and set against backgrounds chosen simply because their innocuousness counterpoints terror.” In Chabrol’s best work, we might reverse the cinematic equation. Terror (or more particularly horror) comes not out of the mechanics of Chabrol’s direction but out of his observational sense and his interest in character, as in the scene in Le Boucher where Héléne takes the children for a picnic through the caves of Cro-Magnon man. The subdued horror is manifested in drops of blood. No immediate danger is evident. Héléne leaves the children in the picnic spot while she goes up a hill to inspect a body, but tension permeates the scene. It’s a small town, murders are being committed, and the conventional rhythm of suspense cinema is collapsed for a more vivid exploration of its effects on a whole community.
- Tony McKibbin, Images Journal
About the DVD
The 1.85.1 anamorphic transfer has nice solid colors and fairly accurate black levels, but unfortunately it’s a bit blurry in spots, much like the transfer for Nada, possibly due to the PAL conversion. It’s only distracting once or twice though, and it’s not a huge problem. Print damage and grain are evident throughout, but they’re minor problems. The transfer could have been better, but overall it’s very watchable.
Viewers are given the choice of watching the film in French or English, and both tracks are Dolby Digital 2.0. The French track is the way to go with this film as both leads can be heard in their native language. The audio is pretty and clean on this release and the wonderful background score comes through nice and clear. Dialogue is easy to follow and clarity is just fine. The only problem is that there are a couple of scenes that are not subtitled. They’re minor and don’t really take anything big away from the movie, but it would have been nice to be able to understand these brief snippets.
In addition to the usual still gallery, talent bios, and theatrical trailer, Pathfinder has included an interesting commentary from screenwriters Howard Rodman and Terry Curtis Lee. The pair work well together and add some welcome insight into the film and it’s director.
- Laurie Jane, DVD Maniacs
About Stéphane Audran
Above all the other filmmakers, Chabrol prized Audran’s fine face and perfect body, and, as far back as Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), understood a low-angle close-up of her profile brought forth an exquisite declaration. Her large, almond-shaped eyes with glistening emerald centers, could effortlessly entrance from a deadlock stare. And her lovely voice would gently tremble from its delicate semi-monotone when feigning confusion or subtly issuing an order, immediately snaring one’s attention. You can see it displayed in several of the director’s thrillers: the La Muette segment of Paris vu Par (1965), where she played the wife to Chabrol’s on-screen character; pouty and seductive in La Femme Infidèle (1969); having a tipsy chat with Jean Yanne during a leisurely (and lengthy) stroll in Le Boucher (1969); as the working girl fleeing oppression in the woefully overlooked La Rupture (1970); and scrambling to make love with Michel Piccoli in Les Noces Rouges (1973).
Ray Young, Flickhead
Stéphane Audran’s career is intimately connected to the emerging New Wave in France as well as to the career of her husband, Claude Chabrol, who directed Audran in her most acclaimed performances. Her beauty is remarkable: the luminous eyes, the exquisitely high cheekbones, the long neck, the grace with which she moves—her hand cocked at a slight angle. What makes Audran different from Garbo or Dietrich (whom she in some ways evokes) is that one never feels that an Audran film has been constructed as a vehicle for her, but rather that her performance, though central, remains subservient to the film’s overall conception. Audran has perfected her portrayal of the bourgeois French woman—elegant, aloof, reserved, and yet often compassionate—who becomes embroiled in a murderous conflict. Her major performances are all related; indeed, in at least five instances, the character Audran plays is named “Hélène,” although each Hélène demonstrates a subtly different psychological makeup. Minor, early Audran performances in Chabrol’s films include the salesgirl who yearns for success on the stage in Les Bonnes Femmes, the first incarnation as Hélène in the triangular tale of jealousy and murder, L’Oeil du malin, and a double role—as a mousy secretary and a femme fatale—in Le Scandale.
At least four later performances stand out as extraordinary. In La Femme infidèle Audran plays, with the most incredible subtlety and economy, an unfaithful wife: when her lover is killed by her husband in a moment of passion, Hélène lies flat on her bed and emits three tiny sobs. One remembers Audran’s mysterious and wondrous expression of approval as she rediscovers her husband’s passion; one remembers, too, the delicacy of her posture at the moment she burns the picture. Although La Femme infidèle takes the emotional conflict between husband and wife as its psychological subject, it is significant to note that not one word passes between them on the subject of their relationship or her infidelity: the conflict is all in the subtext, and Audran makes the subtext dominant through her considerable nuance and skill. In Le Boucher Audran plays a schoolteacher (again, Hélène) who sublimates her sexual desire into her work, but who nevertheless becomes involved with a homicidal maniac who falls in love with her. Here again, as in La Femme infidèle, Audran’s performance seems so extraordinarily integrated into the fabric of the film that one can hardly tell where actress Audran leaves off and director Chabrol begins. Certain images of Audran in Le Boucher are difficult to forget: her elegant walk through town, sustained in a very long tracking shot; her yoga posture, formal and self-absorbing, as she attempts to shut out the world and her problems; her scene of breakdown and tears while eating cherries in her kitchen; and her ultimate isolation—serene and yet desolate—by film’s end.
—Charles Derry, Film Reference.com
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