Claude Chabrol’s La Ceremonie is one of the most frightening films I have ever seen. It is filled with such a word-less unease that by that final scene, you are so disturbed and shaken up that it’s almost a relief to finally bring it all out into the open, horrible as it is. It’s one of the most accurate depictions of the “murderous duo” I have ever seen, which I have written about ad nauseum in other places (primarily here). Individually, those two women are pretty dull. Neither of them has much going for them, except for a vague sense of underlying chaos, form-less and useless. It is meeting the other that ignites internal organization, terrifying and brutal. Alone they are nothing. Together they wreak havoc. Claude Chabrol is fascinated (perhaps that’s too weak a word: obsessed seems more like it), with crime. His films are excavations of the criminal mind, of police procedures, of crime and punishment roiling across the pastoral French countryside. The man is still making films. He’s in his 80s now. A pioneer of the French New Wave. I love his style (and subject matter) so much, but there’s still a lot I have not seen. Le Boucher is a great film, disturbing on an almost primordial level, the quiet interrupted by intimations of great violence, both actual and psychological. Chabrol uses the camera like a stalker here: the camera stands way back, far back, and then zooms in, alarmingly, to an upper-story window. It feels like you’re looking through the cross-hairs. Sometimes, the camera moves quickly along a dolly, racing alongside the characters, so you feel like they’re about to be jumped from behind. And it’s all done subtly, artfully, almost elegantly. Creepy to the extreme. True suspense. You can feel the Hitchcock influence, particularly in a very creepy shot of our heroine’s blonde coiffed head from behind.
Stéphane Audran plays Hélène, headmistress of a school in a rural French town. It is commented upon multiple times that she is young to have such a position. She is good at her job. She is engaged with the kids, taking them on fascinating field trips (one to the Lascaux caves, where she waxes eloquent about Cro-Magnon man to her charges), and devoted to their intellectual growth. She lives in an apartment in the school, surrounded by books. Why is such a beautiful woman single? Well, she does explain that later. 10 years back, she fell in love, got her heart broke, and that was enough for her.
HOWEVER. Hélène only becomes clear as a character once we move into the film a little bit. Our first impression of her is completely destabilizing to what we later learn. And once you have a first impression of someone, there’s no going back. Chabrol certainly knew that. We first meet her at a local wedding. She sits at a long table, and appears to be flirting with the man sitting next to her, a man she does not know. She is tipsy on champagne. She seems fascinated by how he takes charge of the meat and carves it up. Her slightly floozy behavior here does not at all telegraph to us: “School-marm who buried her heart at Wounded Knee.” She seems up for fun, she seems amused, amusing, ready for adventure. Later, this mystery man (the butcher in town, named Paul) walks her back to the school. The streets are old-fashioned and narrow, and Hélène stalks beside Paul, in a staunch drunken manner, a cigarette dangling from her mouth like Gena Rowlands. For all we know, she’s a broad. A tough broad.
This is not to say that a Schoolmarm doesn’t ever get her freak on … but storytelling (good storytelling) is about dropping clues in our path, leaving us fragments that we put together into some whole. That process can shift along the way (and my favorite stories involve such shifts on my part: “Oh, so this is clearly what I am watching … oh, no, wait … have to adjust my perception as new information comes in …” That kind of thing can be very manipulative but when done well (and Chabrol nearly always does it well), it is the most engaging/engrossing kind of storytelling.
My main fascination with Le Boucher has to do with the character of Hélène, and I think it’s Chabrol’s fascination too. That walk, and how she walks, contains all of the questions we will have throughout, the questions that will linger after the final frame. Who is Hélène? What’s her deal? Does she have some sense of what she is dealing with here in Paul (Jean Yanne), who often behaves in a perceptibly creepy manner, showing up beneath her window, not taking “No” for an answer. But she treats him kindly, even flirtatiously, and then … there’s that walk, with the cigarette dangling. Surely she is aware of the signals she is putting across to him. Surely she is not that naive.
Right off the bat, we hear about the murders that have been happening in the small town, women’s bodies found butchered in the nearby woods and elsewhere. Paul is the local butcher, excellent with a knife. Our first glimpse of him he is carving up a roast. So come on, we know he did it. We never see him do anything violent, but we don’t need to. He’s strange. He gloms on to Hélène. Even he seems a little bit shocked by her blatant strut down the street: he expresses surprise that she would smoke in the streets. (i.e.: he’s clocking her on being unladylike.)
All of this occurs in the first 15 minutes of the film. We already have a suspicion that Paul is the murderer. We also think that Hélène may be attracted to him, or maybe she’s just promiscuous and feeling tipsy. Chabrol sets us up in the audience to be a prosecutor, or a detective, putting together clues. Our estimation of Hélène has to be completely adjusted once we learn more about her. We learn that she is celibate, that she is devoted to her work, that she is a serious person, and intellectual. Again, not that any of that is incompatible with a floozy walk down a street with a stranger, but it is still unbalancing. Chabrol was deliberately cloaking her in mystery. Paul may be mysterious, but I find Hélène to be even more so. As their relationship unfolds, we are told only what we need to know, which gives the film a taut suspense that is sometimes unbearable: you want to peek around the corner to see what is coming. You often want to scream at Hélène, “What are you DOING?” Best of all, it is not explained or made explicit. I am still thinking about Hélène when the film ends. I am still thinking about the loneliness of her life, the scar tissue left from that old love affair, and the old hunger for touch/love that seems to explode in her on that tipsy walk down the street with the butcher.
Even as she gets closer and closer to the danger, even as bodies continue to be discovered (one, awfully, on a field trip with the kids), Hélène can’t seem to back away from Paul. Yes, he is insistent, yes, he comes bearing gifts, but it would be simple enough (albeit difficult) to say, “Please leave me alone.” Hélène doesn’t. And it’s not just a simple matter of being attracted to him, or falling in love again, or anything like that.
I feel like it is the fact that he is most probably the murderer everyone is looking for that is the turn-on for her.
This is never said. It is only hinted at. But it’s there. I would even guess that she clocked him as a possible suspect in her first meeting with him at the wedding, with his weirdness, his gusto with the knife, his strangely sweaty attentions to her. Something’s “off” with this guy. And Hélène stalks right into his inner circle. This is NOT the story of a naive woman who gets embroiled with a guy who turns out to be bad. Because in that scenario, her floozy-cigarette walk through the streets would make no sense. She appears to be saying to him, with that walk and the cigarette, “I’m up for it, pal. Whatever you got for me, I’m up for.”
Fascinating character, fascinating characterization. Brilliant performances all around.