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Claude Chabrol and The Poetics of Murder

Claude Chabrol and The Poetics of Murder

by Vandana Kumar November 19 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 5 secs

My first exposure to the ‘French New Wave’, La Nouvelle Vague, was through Claude Chabrol’s Violette Nozière (1978). My admiration of the director grew profoundly with each subsequent film I saw, writes Vandana Kumar

In fact, the first cinema article I wrote, taking a break from my poetry writing, was on Claude Chabrol (24 June 1930 - 12 Sep 2010). The man was not only considered the founding member of the art film movement but also the most mainstream of the entire lot of those filmmakers. There are some films from Claude Chabrol’s oeuvre, especially from the ‘Hélène cycle’ that I had missed out on earlier and amongst them is one that I now considered right there with his very best - Le Boucher, English: The Butcher (1970).

Okay, I confess to being this Chabrol fanatic trying to study and understand the differences in the early, middle and later phase of the director’s work. The ‘Hélène cycle’ was a small period between 1968-1971, when he interestingly used the actress Stéphane Audran (his wife between 1964-1980) repeatedly in most of his films and more fascinating was that she played the character Hélène in them - ambiguous, opaque and beyond comprehension in all.

Le Boucher shows Chabrol in his element; the film has psychologically unhinged and complex characters. This is a classic example of a ‘Not a Whodunit’. Deducing who has committed a series of heinous crimes is no rocket science in this one. As an audience, it is about the journey and also trying to understand the next move, the twists and turns.

Like Hitchcock, Chabrol was not just the master of crime or suspense but of an ambience enveloping a murder or a series of them. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is affable yet bizarre and his presence starts making you uncomfortable as the film progresses. There is something disturbing about him - his voyeurism perhaps. Violette in Chabrol’s Violette Nozière, too, starts to show us how disturbed she is and the audience goes along not knowing just to what extent she will upset the status quo in the stifling and cramped petit bourgeois household. Chabrol always emphasized, “I want the audience to know who the murderer is, so that we can consider his personality”. Le Boucher belongs to precisely this category of films.

The murders happen in a small village of Trémolat (South–West rural France). Jean Yanne as Paul Thomas (called Popaul by the villagers) plays the title role of the butcher. Stéphane Audran as Hélène Daville plays the headmistress. Yes, it’s that sort of small village that would have just one school, one headmistress and one Butcher’s shop. Popaul and Hélène meet at a grand village wedding of the assistant teacher at her school. The butcher is back in the village to take over the family business and has a history of having served the army. She at 30 is sexually repressed, single and hides her loneliness in the way she meticulously handles daily affairs of the school. The two would make for an odd couple and yet perchance are seated next to each other at this wedding. They dance together and he shows his skill with the knife when he serves her the roast. It’s a village with a church and a ceremony like marriage is held sacred here. The suggestion is perhaps they might date and the forthcoming nuptials might be between Popaul and Hélène.

The two keep meeting and between a lot of talk of war, her school and their so-called dates, murders disturb the quiet of the village. We discover soon into the film after the first murder happens that what is gluing us to our seats is the growing latent instincts - be it violent or sexual and the ensuing conflicts to repress them.

Chabrol’s films weren’t just about ‘dead bodies and an atmosphere’ but had a sharp anti-bourgeois thrust. Either that or sometimes, like in Le Boucher, there is an anti-war stance that is palpable - an aspect that was common to most of the New Wave Directors - something that makes him different from Hitchcock and yet Chabrol owes to him, is the anatomy of the suspense template.

So, we have Popaul frequently mention his life altering experiences in the Indo-China and Algerian wars. He talks a lot of his fifteen years serving the army - his conversations hint at inexplicable violence. The thriller aspect of the story is inextricably linked with the traumatic past of Popaul. There is a glimpse of the war memorial very early in the film. Hélène and Paul walk through the village and as they part, the camera lingers on the war memorial. Even though the audience pronounces him a murderer, somewhere the director wants to remind us that Popaul was also a victim of all that he witnessed and was made to do as a soldier serving the country. Coming back from a war zone to a tranquil village - one filled with morals and church - he tries to fit into the society. Popaul is a character whose psyche has been damaged irreparably by war.

All Chabrol film scholars and fans would agree that meals and food is usually are staple. The things they establish might be different in each movie but given the genre Chabrol dabbled with largely, food and dining tables are used either to take pot shots at the bourgeois and their hollow lifestyles or for their biblical context. There is buried atavism and it’s usually about gluttony and sin and of course its logical conclusion of beastly murder.

In Merci pour le Chocolat - Thank You for the Chocolate (2000) the character Marie-Claire ‘Mika’ Muller played by Isabelle Huppert is a sociopath in bourgeois clothing who is happily serving portions of hot chocolate to the entire family. In La Cérémonie (1995) we see family discussions over meals at the dining table about whether the new housekeeper is dubious or a simple honest woman. The schisms between the classes represented by the employers on one hand and the postmistress and the housekeeper on the other are highlighted through meals and dishes.

A joke that one could well crack with Claude Chabrol film lovers is, ‘‘No food? Are you sure you saw a Claude Chabrol film?” The Butcher uses food as a metaphor for the beast. The first wedding sequence itself demonstrates much more than the butcher and his skill at using the knife. Miss Hélène is fascinated seeing him carve the roast. Her oddness comes into focus for the discerning viewer who is not just noticing the titular character. She follows the movement of the knife as if following the movements of a music conductor at an opera. She is the first to take a piece. She seems to have immensely liked his company. He tells her on one occasion that he, naturally, is the best man to know his meats. He says that his father wasn’t as good at the profession. Unlike the flowers’ routine, his idea of a present is a lamb’s leg. He tells Hélène with a sense of pride that he was in charge of the butchery in the army.

The Freudian interpretation and metaphors are strong, as well. The knife is also an overtly obvious phallic symbol. Hélène’s fascination and fear of both the butcher and his knife is an integral part of the relationship between the two. One can’t help but go back to Chabrol’s prime inspiration Alfred Hitchcock and how some of his cinema is a psychoanalyst’s delight. Hitchcock, the conscious and subconscious associations for another time – here I’ll mention the most famous one; of the train entering the tunnel in North by Northwest just after Cary Grant has taken Eva Marie Saint on the marital bed.

The film has the ‘basic instinct’ bursting out of its seams and not just through the food metaphors. The school excursion to some prehistoric caves (Lascaux) organized by Hélène assumes real significance. She speaks favorably of the Cro-Magnon man to the impressionable children. A curious and fascinated child asks, “What could happen if the Cro-Magnon man were to resurface?” - To which she replies, “Maybe he would adapt and live among us. Or maybe he would die.” One is left feeling she is alluding to Popaul. Would he let his atavism come in the way of adjusting with society or is he headed on a journey of no return? Adapting to civilization seems unlikely when there is the discovery of another murder victim from the cliff top.

The repression and primal urge is ultimately represented in the relationship between the protagonists. Hélène is drawn to Popaul is no secret as they ‘hit it off’ right at the start. The fact that his courting her with meat, constantly talking of war and his skills with the knife are what fascinate her, give us a peek into her psyche - she is equally unhinged. She plays a dangerous game - going near yet not letting him consummate the relationship. It is almost as if she knows that the road says ‘Danger ahead’ yet she wants to travel that route, albeit cautiously. She has enough hints that he could be behind the killings, yet hides it. Hélène has a past affair that went awry and since then she has immersed in teaching. She remembers Popaul’s birthday and gifts him a lighter and then is unable to kiss him. The ambivalence regarding Popaul - sending contradictory signals and the sexual frigidity finally culminates in some sort of release - kissing him when she knows he is about to die within the next few minutes.

The school is important too. Once she dictates an extract from Balzac’s works. The students are delighted because the heroine’s name is Hélène. She is thirty years old. The identification with Hélène in Le Boucher grows. Somewhere she is fancying herself to be Balzac’s ‘Hélène’. Finally, the last line of the dictation goes - ‘l’âme la plus grossière devait être impressionnée’ (even the coarsest soul had to be impressed). If that isn’t enough, we are shown Popaul the voyeur, at the window. Perhaps Hélène is desperate for him to become her real-life hero, after his coarse soul is refined. And finally, it is in the school premises that Hélène’s confrontation with the murderer happens - the beast in the flesh and a far cry from the romantic hero of Balzac.

Chabrol’s long takes sweep the village and paint a picture of intrigue, fear and anticipation. It is reminiscent of the one in Le Beau Serge - Handsome Serge (1958). Both villages give character to the films even as they seem remote and self-contained. It’s a canvas of a few characters in both the films. Also, in both the films, the church of the village is significant. The bells of the church signifying purity, rituals and continuity remind that sin co-exists here and threatens the calm of the little village.

The song Capri, petite île plays with the end credits. This was a song from the wedding scene. Chabrol takes us back to where it all began. Things come full circle in a sense. But things are different now - the opening scenes closed in on the wedding - interaction, mingling and merriment. The closure is distant shots of the village. Hélène has been saved from the beast and perhaps the village has been sanitized. Has it?

By the mid 60’s Chabrol seemed to have fallen from grace. Post Ophélia, the French New Wave movement started to look down upon what were spy thrillers and murder quickies in their perception. The critics were ruthless too. The man who was instrumental in shaping the French New Wave and funding so many projects for friends was now, in his own words ‘The Black sheep of the new wave’.

Learning from his mistakes, Chabrol moved towards a deeper understanding of the genre and this led to a more evolved style. The success of Le Boucher in this phase showed Chabrol’s complete mastery over this genre and silenced many of his critics. The film showed him as an auteur. Chabrol was there to stay and now an undisputed master of the poetics of murder.

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