Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Butcher

"The Butcher" aka "Le Boucher" (Claude Chabrol, 1969) Life is hardly a banquet if you're a serial killer.

Chilly suspense film of a Hitchcock blond (St├ęphane Audran), a schoolteacher in a small provincial town, who strikes up a friendship with the local butcher and begins to suspect him of a series of brutal knife-slayings in the area. Chabrol, a former film critic, knows his film language down cold, and you look at his movies knowing that he's not going to waste a single frame without telling you something important in the process. Taking cues from Hitchcock and Hawks but making them his own, "The Chabrol Code" tells you what you need to know, even if Chabrol the director is holding back information or repressing emotions in his actors.

Chabrol the critic is not making his movies for himself, but for an audience, setting up its own mystery and for those who know why he chooses to shoot through a window (distancing, separating but transparent—an important element in a movie about craving...and carving) to make a point, the film is like a treasure chest of tiny clues to what is going on, even if it appears there's not a lot on the surface.

You have to cut deeper.

There, you'll find an odd romance of predator and prey. But which one is which is the question. Helene is blond, cold, her face impenetrable. The butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne) is tortured, subservient, a combination of both stalker and victim. She suspects him, and he suspects she suspects, and a perverse tango of attraction and repulsion locks them into a relationship that runs deeper than the marriage the town celebrates at the beginning of the film. Who will survive? Chabrol tells us from the opening credits: the fittest. And if the film doesn't exactly keep you on the knife-edge of suspense (all the deaths take place off-screen), it is because Chabrol is much more interested in the compulsions, rather than the actions they inspire. And his essay on the Nature of Man (or Woman), by way of the cinema of the past prismed through his own view-finder, makes "Le Boucher" prime cinema.

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