DVD: Boucher, Le / The Butcher (1970)

July 2, 2015 | By


Boucher_LeFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Good

Extras: Good

Label: Pathfinder Home Entertainment

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  May 20, 2003

Genre:  Thriller / French Giallo

Synopsis: A schoolteacher’s friendship with the village butcher may prove dangerous in this giallo-styled thriller from Claude Chabrol.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary by screenwriters Howard Rodman and Terry Curtis Fox / Theatrical Trailer / Stills Gallery / Cast & Director Bios.





Regarded as Claude Chabrol’s most Hitchcockian shocker, Le Boucher can also be described as a French giallo, possessing many of the qualities standard to the original Italian thriller genre.

Chabrol’s story is extremely simple: a school headmistress forms a friendship with a local butcher who may be responsible for a series of grisly murders that have befallen a tiny village flanked by a river and mountains filled with a labyrinth of grottos. The rustic location is filled with village banalities, yet there’s a richness to character interactions – everyone knows each other, and people seem to return and resettle after a sojourn outside of the village boundaries.



On occasion, Helene (Stephane Audran) skirts off to Paris for little trips, but she’s content living the life of a spinster atop the school where she teaches pre-pubescent kids; meanwhile, second generation butcher Paul (Jean Yanne) is back helming the family business after years in the army, a time during which he was denied ‘logic’ and ‘freedom.’ (Conspicuously unspoken in his first personal exchange with Helene is the subject of being denied relationships with women, which has inevitably fostered a nasty, murderous internal conflict.)

The wedding that brings the pair together – Helene’s pedagogical colleague is the groom, and Paul feeds the guests with fine, fresh meat – also causes their relationship to fracture when the bride is soon viciously murdered and killer’s blunder of leaving a clue instills deep suspicion in Helene of Paul’s innocence.

Chabrol’s Hitchcockian touches may lie in tone and suspicions – we certainly suspect Paul is the killer much in the way Johnnie (Cary Grant) is played up as a wife killer in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) – and the use of montage in the closing schoolhouse sequence evokes some of the intense edits of Hitckcock’s Rear Window (1954), but the most overt elements involve fixations on objects, like the fancy cigarette lighter Helene finds at a fresh crime scene. The lighter – its discovery, its implications on the security of the blonde heroine, and its casual reappearance which temporarily brings calm back to Helene and Paul’s friendship – is vital to the shifting trust between the non-couple, but equally Hitchcockian in Chabrol’s script is the gallows humour that permeates many scenes.

Once she’s in possession of the lighter, Chabrol never ceases to remind Helene and the audience of Paul’s potential guilt by having the investigating detective repeatedly light up with a metallic lighter, constantly puffing smoke that weakens Helene’s efforts to suppress her fears and give Paul the benefit of the doubt. A more outrageous moment has Paul interrupting a live classroom and presenting Helene with a leg of lamb, wrapped like a bouquet of flowers, which she enthusiastically accepts and somewhat sniffs, delighted by its ‘freshness.’

There’s also Chabrol’s use of placing banal foreground actions atop of discrete yet suspicious background action, as when the police are seen moving back and forth in the rear of the school’s playground while Helene chats and slowly shepherds the kids back from recess. Her denial of grim goings on after hearing whispers from kids of a cadaver’s discovery indicate her stance that nothing so grim could possibly befall her idyllic town, and yet once she acknowledges the first kill, Helene remains in a state of perpetual deep thought – conflicted and puzzled right to the film’s final shot.

The lack of a Hollywood resolution reflects Chabrol’s unique fixation on the unlikely friendship between a spinster and a killer who has genuine (albeit suppressed) tenderness and devotion towards Helene, but there’s palpable doubt whether their friendship could’ve evolved into even a semi-normal romance.

Paul may remain pure by killing rather than raping and killing his victims – an aspect that surprises the police – but he’s a pressure cooker of sexual aggression. Unlike Helene, who’s chosen celibacy after one bad romance a decade earlier and has convinced herself with modest success that love should be avoided, Paul’s mounting rage remained locked up during his military tours, but now that he’s back from Asia and its grisly gore, there are no overseers to keep him in check, no regimented routines to suppress seedy urges, and when not applying his care to the trade of butchering animals into consumable products, he starts to stalk Helene in the day and nighttime.

Chabrol’s handling of their friendship makes Paul’s position as a reluctant killer believable, and Helene less naïve: their dialogue is natural, honest, and often covered in long unedited takes which feel like directorial efforts to solidify their genuine friendship and attraction rather than homages to Hitchcock or Orson Welles. They’re also rendered less extravagant by the editing that surrounds the shots, which feels more documentary, especially when it involves Jean Rabier’s cinematography and the use of real locations.

The film’s editorial style recalls both Hitchcock in terms of montage, and Jean-Luc Godard in softer-styled jump cuts and fadeouts whose final black frame is immediately followed by a bright, fully lit shot, and yet in spite of the docu feel from the village locations, Chabrol indulges in a pastel palette that’s filled with soft yet rich colours. The hairstyles may contemporize the film’s 1970 setting, but the colours are dreamy fifties: gauzy Eastmancolor, live on location.

While elements of Hitchcock permeate aspects of the story and direction, the grisly murders and use of actual locations are more evocative of an Italian giallo, especially Pierre Jansen’s appropriately garbled score that blenders piano, trumpet, electric bass and other sonics into a non-thematic collage that’s daring for the average thriller, if not anathema to a Hitchcock film. Chabrol could’ve followed Francois Truffaut and opted for a Herrmannesque score a la The Bride Wore Black (1968), but he chose a sound more typical of the Italian giallo, emoting the chaos of Ennio Morricone and his work with the Guppo di improvvisazione nuova consonanza.

What’s quite surprising is that while Chabol’s film may look like a giallo and sound specifically like a Dario Argento giallo, Le Boucher was released the same month as Argento’s seminal generic entry, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, making the music’s design coincidental, as both composers sought to evoke the demented mind of a killer through the use of layered, sometimes abrasive instrumentation that’s highly experimental.

Pathfindner Home Entertainment’s DVD features an okay PAL-NTSC transfer with decent colour but heavy DNR. The image is soft, but there’s no ghosting from the conversion. Extras include bio sketches, and a theatrical trailer which, not unlike the advert for Bride Wore Black, is cut, scored, and structured to sell the film as a bodycount thriller, even to French audiences.

The most significant extra is a commentary track by screenwriters / professors Howard Rodman (Savage Grace) and Terry Curtis Fox (TV’s The Hunger and Diagnosis Murder), which initially covers a lot of ground but becomes spotty after the midpoint, as both tend to watch the film rather than offer further details. (There’s also the issue of close-miking which picks up heavy breathing and tummy sounds after drinking.)

Although Chabrol’s work deserves clean, HD releases at this stage, Pathfinder’s production is fine, and forms part of a lengthy set of releases which include the director’s Les Biches / Bad Girls (1968), The Unfaithful Wife / La femme infidèle (1969), This Man Must Die / Que la bête meure (1969), The Butcher / Le Boucher (1970), La rupture / The Breach (1970), Just Before Nightfall / Juste avant la nuit (1971), Ten Days’ Wonder / La décade prodigieuse (1971), Nada (1974), and Innocents With Dirty Hands / Les innocents aux mains sales (1975).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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