One of my favourite film directors is the late Claude Chabrol, and my favourite Chabrol film is Le Boucher, a psychological suspense from 1970 in which he truly “out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock”.
It starts with the ultimate icon of social order – all the comings and goings at a wedding ceremony in an idyllic country setting, a little country town in the Dordogne.
It’s the kind of town that seems to sum up many people’s ideas of “small-town France”, from the tittle-tattle in the boulangerie to the very “country” wedding band (older Irish readers should know what I mean), and police vehicles that are filmed in long-shots to look almost like Dinky cars.
The following clip has new music overdubbed, but gives a good visual flavour of the wedding, which is filmed in semi-documentary style…
Stéphane Audran and Jean Yanne play lonely schoolteacher Hélène and village butcher Popaul (a war veteran). In one long take they begin to strike up a friendship while taking a fag break from the wedding dance; Audran wears a mesmerising polka-dot outfit during the scene – c’est logique!
Apologies for poor quality of this bande annonce (trailer), but you should get my drift about the wedding band and the polka-dots…
Then after the long wedding meal and much singing and dancing, the tranquility and stability are shattered by sheer chaos: a murder. Of the bride.
Filmed impeccably, with darkness and a good bit of humour too, it’s one of two films that Hitchcock said he wished he had made (though – spoiler alert – I felt the ending was a bit of a cop-out).
Chabrol’s muses: Audran and Yanne
Stéphane Audran (the second Missus Chabrol) was the director’s muse in some two dozen films, and her Hélène character pops up in at least nine of Chabrol’s movies. Inspired by Helen of Troy — “the face that launched a thousand ships” – she’s usually the catalyst or centre of the action.
The Popaul character (or sometimes “Paul Thomas”) appeared in 14 of his films, such as the “beast” in Que la bête meure, though nothing can quite top Le Boucher. And, as in much French postwar fiction and cinema – from the Umbrellas of Cherbourg musical to Didier Daeninckx’s novel Murder in Memoriam and Michael Haneke’s thriller Caché (Hidden) – the ghosts of the Algerian war linger over it all.
Audran was later replaced by Isabelle Huppert – check out Chabrol’s 1995 film “La cérémonie”. Set in Brittany, it’s a superb adaptation of the brilliant Ruth Rendell book A Judgement In Stone (some French film-makers are huge fans of both her and Hitchcock) and well worth a look.
Once again there’s a theme of bourgeois social order being thrown into chaos.
Jean-Pierre Cassel and Jacqueline Bisset play a couple who employ housekeeper Sandrine Bonnaire, then they start suspecting that she has been tampering with the post after she befriends Huppert, a bolshie rural postal worker who goes, well, postal. Also definitely worth watching, and another good introduction to Chabrol’s work.