Claude Chabrol isn’t underappreciated at large, but his movies still aren’t getting their due among North American thriller fans. It’s a cliché to call Chabrol the “French Hitchcock,” but it’s that very term which has initiated a lot of young foreigners into Chabrol fandom, so I’m using it here like bait. If you love thrillers — and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure — you might hear “French Hitchcock” and take notice. The term isn’t altogether accurate or fair, but as tiresome as it must be for Chabrol to hear, it’s not completely wrong, either. Like Hitchcock, Chabrol is a master of the thriller-plus, a film that has a mystery at its heart, a memorable suspense sequence, and violence as window-dressing — but it also has a richness of theme and subtext most thrillers lack. It attracts capable actors and production teams, comes off flawlessly and hits us in the viscera. The thriller-plus gets time not just at midnight showings packed with loving fans, but on critics’ best-of lists and film-school syllabuses. And if anyone’s reading this who hasn’t seen a Chabrol movie yet, The Butcher (1970), which some consider his masterpiece, is a good starting-point. Team it with The Breach (La Rupture) and The Cry of the Owl, and you’ll have a hard time resisting the man.
Chabrol has been making movies for fifty years now, and while he’s had some misses (e.g. L’Enfer) and stirred some controversy (e.g. misogyny), his hits are gifted with that elusive trait of great filmmaking: they get even better with age. The Butcher — a movie made the year I was born — still has a pulse strong enough to trigger a rushing in the ears. Part thriller, part meditation on natural violence, and part travelogue (southwestern France beckons hard), The Butcher was shot in the town of Trémolat and takes advantage of the nearby grottoes of Cougnac in a scene that anticipates Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in look and feel. The movie is filled with children, which almost always surround Helene (Stéphane Audran), their teacher, principal and all-purpose shepherd. Helene runs the village elementary school, which borrows a few rooms in a cavernous civic building that looms over the village square. Gathering guano in that square is a war memorial that speaks to the local butcher (Jean Yanne), whom his friends affectionately call Popaul. Popaul served his country in Algeria and Indochine, and he doesn’t need much prodding before he’ll talk about the eviscerated corpses he’s seen on the battlefield, and the generally harrowing experience of war. Chabrol’s intersecting of Helene’s world — and the gentle promise embodied in her pupils — with Popaul’s memories creates a sense of disjointedness which puts us on edge just moments in.
The film opens with a wedding. Three bakers trip down a narrow lane with cakes and napoleons for the guests, which include Helene and Popaul. Seated next to one another, the two strike up a conversation and, over the course of the party — over cigarettes, champagne, and a choice cut of meat — hunt for common ground. They’re both single and curious, but Helene walls herself off from Popaul and (we assume) from the other village men with her laissez-faire feminism and her Parisian wardrobe. That’s not to say she isn’t friendly or interested, but as she and Popaul walk back towards the school, the coarse folk music of his world eventually falls away, replaced with sophisticated atonal jazz that literally underscores Helene’s distance from the townsfolk. She climbs the stairs of the school to her apartments, from which she can look over the village like an aristocrat, but all the disjointedness in the world isn’t enough to keep Helene and Popaul from a courtship over the following days. Popaul woos Helene with lamb shanks, wild mushrooms and potted cherries; he keeps the best meats for her and even offers to paint her flat. Helene, in turn, lets Popaul into her and her students’ routines and gifts him with a new lighter. She tells him with words and posture that she’s leery of relationships, but her facial expressions and her frank attention suggest that the local butcher might succeed where others have failed.
In the background of this courtship is a pastoral countryside that begins to yield the bodies of women up from its earth. A pall settles over the town, and the murders brush close to Helene when she discovers a corpse while taking her students on a tour through the local caves. Next to the body is the lighter she gave Popaul; Helene opts to keep this piece of evidence to herself, even though — with this decision — she sets herself up to dread Popaul’s next visit. When he turns up at her place with the cherries that evening, Helene tries to keep up her charade. It’s a credit to both Chabrol and his leads that Popaul and Helene’s conversation over dessert is in itself a moment of acute suspense loaded with helpful symbols that highlight the new unease between them. Their dialogue, which used to be airy, is broken up by the cherry pits rolling around their mouths and punctuated by their polite spitting out of those pits. It’s the kind of scene that reminds us what film as a medium can attain — what it can do that other narrative forms can’t. The cherry-eating scene contains full-on Hitchcockian suspense, but it’s simultaneously pregnant with the various meanings of communication.
The cherry confab, the grotto sequence, and the final showdown in the old school (when Helene hurries to lock doors and windows normally kept unlatched) are the scenes that make The Butcher an unapologetic thriller of the best kind. The tautness of those scenes is grinding, but they’re complemented by interlocking moments that create a portrait of rural French life — from wedding to funeral to daily shopping rites. It’s difficult to say much more about the story without completely spoiling it; it’s safer to talk about the beauty of the movie’s faded colors and the village’s idyllic allure and the steady, minimalist use of composition and sound. The Butcher is Chabrol at his most pared down, which lets the textures of story and performance take over and lull us into the players’ world. It lets the lovely spareness of the town’s architecture argue for a sense of complacency the rest of the film won’t let us enjoy, and it makes fitting use of the Cougnac caves — with their candle-wax stalactites and cathedral ceilings, the caves evoke an old church, which is just about the most telling and most interesting site to place Helene and her kids for a lesson about the relative notions of human brutality, present and past.
As lovely as the movie is, and as sharp its suspense, special consideration has to be given to Audran and Yanne. They make incredible things happen with very challenging and deceptively simple material. Audran, in particular, is always astonishing to watch in a Chabrol film; as his one-time wife of almost twenty years, she’s made a few, and her work in The Butcher is considered to be among her best. She makes good decisions for her character that give Helene super-dimension, like the way she speaks to Popaul as if he’s one of her students in one moment, then in the next absorbs him unconditionally into her urbane orbit. Her self-love never for a second exceeds her love of teaching, or her admiration of her charges and of the way her adopted village runs on its traditional clockwork. It’s a lifestyle she’s apparently chosen, and she fits in so long as she feels she’s a figure of authority even in a roomful of adults — even though she’s as thin and pale as a baguette. Yanne, as Popaul, is perfectly cast as the southern hick with swarthy, potentially homey, appeal. He’s never quite appropriate, showing up to court Helene in front of her students, or arriving for supper before she’s finished correcting their assignments. He’s like a third wheel constantly rotating for a fit not just in Helene’s life but in everyday, generic life as well. When his lighter is found next to that victim, we aren’t at all surprised; the tension lives in how Helene and Popaul will negotiate that knowledge, and in how a serial killer in love well out of his league will behave when the mirror’s held up to his face. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Underappreciated Gems series, on January 14, 2009.)