Le Boucher is a thriller set in a small town in France, where the small community is rocked by a string of brutal slayings. When you encounter a murder mystery that is called "the butcher," in which the first character introduced is said butcher, you might have certain expectations as to the outcome of the tale. In this case, those expectations are probably accurate. Luckily, this movie is not a whodunit, and the identity of the murder is never really in question. (In case you were still curious, it is, indeed, the butcher.)
The murders are not the point, neither is the identity of the killer. The interest lies in the relationship between the characters. As is the case in many Hitchcock movies, the bond between Helene (Stephanie Audran) and Propaul (Jean Yanne) has psychosexual undertones. The murders begin shortly after Helene rejects Propaul's sexual advances, leading us to believe that his murders are driven by sexual frustration, or as a way to consummate his physical attraction. What's even more strange is that, by the end, Helene seems almost complicit with this arrangement.
Claude Chabrol is known to create mysterious characters whose small gestures seem to mask an intensity that roils beneath the surface, in the subconscious and the unspoken. It is often frustrating to dissect these characters, because their actions are as inscrutable the most inscrutable actions we witness in reality. The realization of this vision relies on fantastic acting. Chabrol tends to favor actresses as his muses, including Stephanie Audran (his then wife), and later, Isabelle Huppert, both of whom have nearly perfected the cold and desolate stare, which manages to say so much without words. There is little action on screen. Instead, Chabrol relies on his actresses to portray their inner lives through the small gestures and conversations that do permeate the screen.
Within this film is a strong examination of traditional, gendered relationships. Helene is a woman who has no use for a man. She is independent; she even has a room full of children to look after, already. Propaul is a butcher, giving him an masculine inclination to provide for her, and he does provide her with choice cuts of meat, when he is not employing his talents outside of the boundaries of his profession.
Interestingly, Propaul speaks often about his experiences in the war, gory instances which, presumably also led to his murderous propulsions. Now, Propaul has returned to a place where he is no longer needed-- a soldier who has come home, only to find that women have replaced him and his comrades in the workforce, becoming self-sufficient. He is constantly emasculated by Helene, in small ways. In one scene, he seats himself at her table in a child's chair, placing him at a height that suggests submission. She lights his cigarettes for him, until she gives him a lighter for his birthday, a plot device which also leads her to suspect him as the killer, when she finds it near the body of a murder victim.
But then, the fable is not as simple as that. Helene refuses to be Propaul's lover because of a previous relationship that went bad. She is untrusting of men, untrusting, seemingly, of her own sexuality, and her refusal to engage with men has clearly done little to prevent disaster. In the end, Propaul's violence seems to excite her, as much as it terrifies her. This is revealed in the near-orgasmic moment of penetration when Propaul stabs himself. Like Chabrol's most memorable creations, the characters reside in a universe where there are no easy answers, and definitely no obvious ones. Likely, Helene herself does not know why she allowed herself to indulge in this dalliance, at all. As with Chabrol's best films, we will likely never know for sure. But it will take multiple viewings until the intricacies begin to unfold. I look forward to spending more time with Le Boucher, in the future.