Made during his exceptionally fertile late 1960s period, which also produced 'La Femme Infidele' and 'Les Biches', Chabrol's most overt Hitchcockian film is a perfect example of the suspense genre, and contains at least two homages (from 'Strangers On A Train' and 'Foreign Correspondent') to the films of the director so admired by Chabrol and his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries. Chabrol sets the scene; an idyllic French rural village, a tight-knit community all in attendance at the wedding reception of a schoolteacher and his wife. At this reception, two strangers meet for the first time; Helene (Stephane Audran), a headmistress and Popaul (Jean Yanne), a butcher who has just completed a fifteen year spell in the army. They start by making small talk - this is the start of a friendship blossoming.
Then Chabrol pulls the rug from under our feet. In this perfect setting there is danger lurking below the surface. Dead bodies have been found locally and the police suspect that a serial killer is on the loose. They have no leads, no clues, but one person in the community has suspicions. In one memorable scene, Helene is taking her class on a trip to some caves. Eating lunch outside, a girl finds blood (with the appearance of ketchup perhaps) in the sandwich. It has fallen from a body on a cliff face above. Investigating, she finds a lighter (the reference to 'Strangers On A Train') belonging to Popaul. Is he the murderer at large or does the fact that he still retains the lighter proof of his innocence? Significantly, Helene never informs the police of this fact. But why? Does she see him as a kindred spirit? They are both lonely - though she doesn't strictly have romantic feelings for him, it is obvious they have a bond. Does she not want to lose this? Much is made in analysis of Hitchcock in that his film oftens had a recurring motif known as "exchange of guilt", which is prominent in 'Strangers On A Train'. Here, Helene is complicit in Popaul's suggested crimes. She is drawn to him, unwilling to voice her suspicions.
Chabrol handles Popaul's guilt/innocence very ambiguously. The lighter found at the scene of one crime is never confirmation of Helene's suspicions either way. Chabrol uses this to increase the tension to unbearable limits. As Helene distances herself from Popaul, rejecting his advances, she locks herself inside the school frantically, turning off lights. As she notices Popaul has left by his disappearance outside, we know of course than he has found his way inside. Chabrol's characterisation of Popaul is also vague. He's an accomplished butcher of course, who speaks constantly of the best way to cut meat. His experiences in the army; in Indo-China and Algeria, have left him mentally scarred. When some locals discuss the discovery of a body, he explains of the horrors that he has seen, though one local's retort it that "this was war, murders like these are savagery". Popaul hardly has any obvious characteristics that might suggest he is capable of these crimes either. It's the contradictions within his personality that allows Chabrol to maintain the tension and the credibility of the entire film.
'Le Boucher' is a tight and concise thriller, expertly handled and able to maintain its suspense for the entire duration until its tragic climax. This is a film about people who've suffered emotional damage; Popaul has seen the worst things imaginable in the army, Helene has had a love affair turn sour in the past, making her unable to commit herself to Popaul. Chabrol is both fair and sympathetic to these two people, demonstrating their need for connection and to overcome their demons. Whether he is guilty or not of the crimes that Helene suspects him of is perhaps, much like the Hitchcock Macguffin, largely secondary to the more overwhelming theme at hand. 4/5