Popaul: "I have a lot of blood – my blood doesn’t stop flowing. I know about blood. I’ve seen so much blood, blood flowing. … Once, when I was little, I fainted when I saw blood. I noticed the smell of blood – they all smell the same, that of animals and that of men. Some is more red than others, but all have exactly the same smell."
Popaul's sad soliloquy closes "Le Boucher" much as Peter Lorre's sad soliloquy closes "M." The speech may be pathetic in retrospect, but it's powerful in delivery. Its power is subtle - it doesn't really encourage empathy, nor does it explain the brutal murders. It doesn't do much, and yet it reveals so much about both the character and the film.
Claude Chabrol is the filmmaker most deserving to be called "the European Hitchcock." No other European director (not even Henri-Georges Clouzot, whom Hitchcock considered his main rival) so masterfully evokes the suspense that Hitchcock championed. And yet Chabrol manages to break away now and then, to create an identity out of his own thematic obsessions, apart from his powerful predecessor. He does so in his masterpiece, "Le Boucher," a film that is fully Chabrol.
"Le Boucher" is not a terribly suspenseful movie. The suspense is behind the walls, present but not visible. We feel it in the quiet soundtrack, or the stark set designs. It's an uneasy atmosphere within the serene provincial town, underneath the mundane routine of village life.
Against this backdrop, Chabrol paints a portrait of human existence, comprehensive and profound.
The film opens with a wedding; before it is over, we have attended a funeral. Our heroine is Mademoiselle Helene, headmistress at the village school. She educates the young while their parents go about their lives, far from the complexities of city life: they are farmers, shop-owners, bakers, and butchers. The local butcher is Popaul, a military man who has seen the world and returned to small-town life. He fought in Algeria and Vietnam, and has seen the worst humankind has to offer. In Mademoiselle Helene, he finds the best.
The dichotomy at the heart of humankind is the subject of many films, particularly war films. Pvt. Joker dons a peace sign juxtaposed with the words "born to kill" in "Full Metal Jacket"; Sgt. Welsh and Pvt. Witt collide like philosopher-warriors in "The Thin Red Line." "Le Boucher," despite its provincial setting, is a sort of war film. Popaul's battlefield experiences have left him cynical, almost bitter, toward the rest of humankind. How those experiences affect his actions in the movie is perhaps debatable (it seems fairly obvious to me).
Popaul's vision of humankind is brutal, almost animal. The village is faced with this version of life when a young woman is found in the woods, horribly murdered. Police invade the township, and investigators roam the streets. One investigator questions Helene about a possible suspect, her newlywed colleague Leon. "Impossible," she says. "If only you knew what we see," he replies, "and what humanity can be."
Helene doesn't know, because her vision of humankind represents the other half of the dichotomy. She values humanity's tendency toward justice, goodness, and beauty. She instructs her students in Balzac - they study art and poetry. She takes them mushroom hunting in a scenic countryside. She is always encouraging her students, both in word and deed. Her apartment is adorned with great works of art, reproduced in cheap prints that make them accessible to all. During a field trip in the caves of Lascaux, where ancient Europeans first painted on walls, she elegantly explains the origin of art: "When we remove corruption and baseness from our desires, they became aspirations."
Helene's inability to reconcile "corruption" with passion has resulted in a lonely life. When Popaul presses her for romance, she shyly recalls a failed love affair of her youth. She is not eager to tread those old paths. She remains distant, almost cold, guarding herself with propriety.
Popaul is likewise lonely, for altogether different reasons. His violent and unstable life (which has resulted in an equally violent and unstable personality) has rendered him incapable of normal human relationships. His interaction with Helene is awkward - he obviously wants a romance, but cannot achieve it. All their conversations descend into talk of war and blood, with Popaul doing most the talking and Helene politely listening.
Perhaps paradoxically (perhaps not), they both seem comfortable in the presence of children. The untrained, unsocialized minds of Helene's students arouse in both Popaul and Helene a desire to train and socialize - Popaul offers his cynical wit, and Helene her culture and sanity. But with adults (and each other), Helene is evasive and Popaul is bitter.
How does a worldview so overpower an individual, to the point that it interferes with their everyday life? Helene and Popaul could be relatively happy, either apart or with each other, if they weren't so bound to the past, the experiences that have shaped their perspectives and enslaved their views of humanity. They cannot get beyond their worldviews, and thus cannot free themselves of the limitations that, at the film's end, result in dire tragedy.
The conflict at the heart of every individual is ultimately a conflict of shifting perspectives. This conflict usually resolves itself either by fusion or annihilation. If we see the world as it is - a dichotomy - the conflicting worldviews will fuse, and we are more likely to understand ourselves and our neighbors. If, however, we fail to accept or grasp the world's inherent contradictions, one of the conflicting worldviews will conquer the other, damaging and ultimately isolating us.
The beauty of Popaul's final speech is its honesty. This is a man who has seen nothing but blood, who cannot get beyond blood, and who is ultimately destroyed by the possibility that humankind is little more than blood. If Helene were to deliver a similar soliloquy, it would no doubt bemoan the lonely, bloodless nature of life. If either had been able to reach beyond themselves and understand the other, tragedy may have been averted.
Note: It may seem that I have overlooked the most important and troubling aspect of "Le Boucher" - the murders. I do not believe I have. They reflect, at once, the grand portrayal of human existence that Chabrol presents (murder, after all, is an unfortunate part of every human society) and the conflict between Helene and Popaul's opposing worldviews. Helene is increasingly saddened and shocked by the murders; Popaul wouldn't expect anything less from this world.
For more on "Le Boucher," read Roger Ebert's review, as well as Strictly Film School's overview of Chabrol's key films.