Claude Chabrol’s Thriller Can Be Interpretted Endlessly
Le Boucher, Claude Chabrol’s 1970 masterpiece about the relationship between a school headmistress and a butcher in the rural French village of Tremolat, is gorgeous and haunting at once and leaves us with a long list of unanswered questions that open the film to a wide range of interpretations. Roger Ebert’s review of Le Boucher is game to the task of offering some interpretations that make sense, even if they provide more questions than answers themselves, but I found myself agreeing with Ebert when he writes, “Le Boucher has us always thinking. What do they know, what do they think, what do they want?” Indeed. A quick look at my screening notes: “Why doesn’t (Helene) want to tell (the cop) about the lighter? It seems weird that she would be wanting to conceal something like that. She doesn’t really have a relationship outside of friendship yet with the butcher, so why is she trying to protect him?” At the end of the film, again, I had more questions than answers, my scribbled notes: “What a weird movie. The thing I don’t get is Helene. Why does she kiss him? Why does she help him? I just don’t understand her motivation, or his, frankly. He just likes killing people? Strange flick.”
My confusion is clarified later in Ebert’s piece when he offers this: “Sample the reviews of ‘Le Boucher,’ and you’ll find it described as a film about a savage murderer and the school mistress who doesn’t know the danger she’s in. This completely misses the point. It’s not that the point is hard to find — Chabrol is very clear about his purpose — but that we’ve been hammered down by so many slack-witted thrillers that we’ve learned to assume that the killer is the villain and the woman is the victim.”
But in Chabrol’s film, Helene is not the victim, even though she may want to be, and the butcher is not necessarily a villain. Vincent Canby writes that Chabrol’s admiration of his characters are at play here. The murders always take place off-screen, and any time PoPaul is on screen, he is shown in a sympathetic, flattering light – bringing Helene the lamb leg, the cherries in brandy, painting the school, butchering the roast at the wedding – we never see PoPaul as a cold-blooded killer, even as we suspect him. And suspect him we do, mainly because there is no one else in the narrative who the killer could be, but even through our suspicion, we are strangely compelled to PoPaul, as is Helene.
Helene is a strange character herself. She lives her life unlike other women of her time and place, and PoPaul points this out, calling her decision not to pursue a husband after losing her first love unusual. He doesn’t understand her, and neither do we. The long tracking shot, Ebert claims, is where Helene establishes herself and makes PoPaul fall in love with her. The way she smokes particularly, with the cigarette dangling from her mouth as she strides, Ebert says comes off as “butchy,” or masculine, and perhaps it’s that strong independence that attracts PoPaul to her. But why are we drawn to Helene? For me, it was because she broke from familiar character tropes. As I watched the mystery unfold, I couldn’t explain why Helene does what she does at almost any point.
The ending of the film, which is confusing, maddening, but somehow quiet and thoughtful as well, is extraordinary, and although we have a couple of questions answered, really, the film’s ending serves to offer up far more questions we never get answered. When PoPaul confronts Helene with the knife, she closes her eyes and braces herself for death. Despite the fact that moments earlier, she was running through the school locking every door, while we, the audience, were preparing ourselves for the usual jump-scares we have come to expect from thrillers such as Le Boucher. How ready we are to have PoPaul’s hand slip through a door’s opening and grab Helene by the wrist, to watch him brutally murder her while blood splashes his villainous smile, but these moments never come. Instead, PoPaul, complete with irresistible puppy-dog stare, stands alone in the window, begging to be let in. It’s important he says, but she politely refuses. No window-smashing or gnashing of teeth. When Helene closes her eyes, quietly succumbing to his murderous intent, he instead plants the knife in his own abdomen, again, subverting our expectations wildly. Chabrol, through all of the vagueness of his characters, the foreboding of his haunting score, the mystery of a serial-killer’s rampage, manages grab us acutely by the throat in his closing with the soft, sweet melody of a love song.
“So much goes unsaid between these two people,” Ebert writes. “So much is guessed or hinted. They’re a pair, all right, and she senses it at the wedding feast. They don’t fit in any ordinary romantic or matrimonial way, but what happens in this movie happens because of them as a couple. If you bring enough empathy to her character, you can read that final scene more deeply. It is a sex scene. They don’t touch, but then they never did… Pay particular attention to … 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.”
But what is it? I certainly had no concrete idea. But I did have my interpretation, and perhaps that’s what Chabrol wants all along, not to offer a definitive end, but to offer an opportunity for infinite endings. For me, Helene believed love was no longer possible for her, and she was spending the rest of her days in a socially-acceptable role in which she wouldn’t need a man. When PoPaul confronts her in the school with the knife, she doesn’t fight because she’s ready to die. She hasn’t fallen for him, but when she discovers the truth, she doesn’t turn him in. Why? Perhaps because she wanted to be one of his victims. When he turns the knife on himself, her head spins. Relief and disappointment at once, and now, what to do with this bleeding-out man? She takes him to the hospital, and along the way realizes that he has the type of endless love for her that she wanted from the man who left her 10 years prior, the same type of love she had given him before he left her lovesick. She cries on the car ride, and instead of wanting to the butcher to die, she begins to want him to live. But, it’s too late, and she knows it. He dies, and with him, hope dies for her. Both for a chance at happiness, and a chance at death, another form of happiness for her. She’s condemned to a life of solitude.
“During a class trip to the nearby Lascaux caves and their wall paintings, she speaks approvingly of Cro-Magnon Man,” Ebert writes. “His instincts and intelligence were human, she says. A child asks: What if he came back now, the Cro-Magnon? What would he do? Miss Helene replies: Maybe he would adapt and live among us. Or maybe he would die. Is she thinking of the butcher?”
I would argue the opposite – she’s thinking of herself. What does one do when thrown into a new existence one never expected? They adapt and live among us, or they die. Either are acceptable choices when hope (love) is lost.
Helene, who has adapted in the 10 years since losing her love, is living her new life, free of men, among the villagers of Tremolat.
Or, maybe, she should die. Either/or. Both are acceptable.
And if the latter is better choice, what easier way to die than to befriend, flirt with, and deny the sexual urges of a murderer?
With Le Boucher, Chabrol, a master craftsman guided in his career by heavyweights Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, has left us with a thriller that can be interpreted endlessly. Unlike the French New Wave films that preceded it, Le Boucher is centered around a plot that moves the film forward briskly and beautifully, but also one that includes the New Wave’s signature ambiguity. In the end, Chabrol leaves us a gift much like the butcher leaves Helene by stabbing himself in the gut: He kills his own interpretation of his film and gives life to our own.