A disturbed butcher falling for a small-town schoolteacher forms the blood and bones of Claude Chabrol’s classic 1970 thriller. Set in the heart of the Dordogne close to one of the region’s prehistoric caves, Popaul (Jean Yanne) is a needy soul: he cuts up dead animals in the day and dreams about women at night. Unsurprisingly, he begins to fixate on the polished sweetness of Hélène (Stéphane Audran), a teacher whom he meets at a local wedding (for which he has provided the meat).
Chabrol directs infatuation and sinister happenings with the soothing clarity of a Grimm fairytale. One woman is murdered, and then, a short time afterwards, another is found dead during Hélène’s class trip to the local cave: a hand hangs over a cliff edge, dripping blood down onto a child’s sandwich.
Yet, despite the general concern caused by the gruesome discoveries, Chabrol ensures the town stays sunny, the children curious and Audran peaceful and quietly delighted with her new and steady friendship with Popaul.
Popaul’s efforts to charm Hélène frequently take the form of dead animal flesh: he talks about pretty lambs that will make great joints, and brings a leg of lamb into the classroom while she’s teaching a lesson on Honoré Balzac. Hélène is delighted that she has a butcher friend who brings her meat.
Chabrol remains faithful to his regular choice not to expose the psychological background of his villains. Instead, he plays with them as a cat with a mouse, artfully manipulating and surprising the audience. This is a clever directorial-tactic, and makes us feel sympathy for Popaul.
We like Popaul: he’s gentle and humble, and has the haunted look of a man who was locked in the cupboard as a small boy, too-often rejected by his mother. Any warm-hearted person wants to reach in and grab Popaul out of the screen, and give him some comfort.
With the authority of a Grecian-goddess and purity of the Madonna (much admired by Popaul, of course) Hélène guards her heart, resisting taking their friendship to the next level. ‘It’s not difficult to do without things,’ she says to a calmly disappointed Popaul. Of course, this makes her even more alluring. Unreachable.
The two become closer, and when Hélène suspects it’s not only lambs into which Popaul likes to thrust his knife, her graceful authority shudders. Hélène is stunned: a doe in headlights.
Yet throughout the final confession scene (arguably Chabrol’s finest) when Popaul has turned the knife on himself, entering his self-inflicted abattoir, Hélène is strong: she steps out the headlights and is resilient.
This is Chabrol’s glorification of women, their purity and strength (in his eyes); and by contrast: the image of a crumbling man, damaged and dying.
Dir: Claude Chabrol (1970)