Helene and Popaul have much in common, both of them fairly recent additions to the town (although Popaul was actually born there) and unburdened romantically. Popaul has recently returned from a long stint in the French army travelling the world and seeing horrors that he'd rather not talk about. The only reason that he's returned now is that his abusive father has died, leaving him their shop. Helene runs the town school with Leon, bringing up everyone's kids and doing a fine job of it. The school is quite the focal point of their relationship, since Helene lives above it, which is convenient for Popaul. In a particularly surreal moment he brings her a fresh joint of lamb and brandishes it like a bouquet (so similar is it to a bunch of flowers).
With time their relationship deepens, although Helene gently rejects any progression beyond the platonic. She was greatly hurt in a difficult break-up, several years previously, and aims to protect herself by uninvolvement. In the background village life continues, briefly shaken by the discovery of a girl's corpse in the local woods. It's a bizarre and troubling occurrence for such a close-knit town, particularly when there appears to be no sexual motive. The local police are stymied by their case, lacking any clues to the killer's identity. When Helene herself discovers the second body, on a school trip, doubt creeps into her mind. Could the murderer be someone close, perhaps even Popaul?
Le Boucher has many remarkable qualities, several of which stem from the exquisite atmosphere created by Claude Chabrol. Set in the Perigord region of France, the natural settings (particularly the nearby limestone caves) are stunning. With the mist gently rising over the river and the fairy-tale unease of the forest, these locations provide an intense regional flavour. An associated feature is that the small town behaves realistically, with chickens scratching in the road and inhabitants going about their daily business. A lot happens in the background of Le Boucher, not all of which is insignificant.
If you haven't seen Le Boucher then you must not read beyond this paragraph. In order to discuss the film fully crucial details are about to be revealed. Suffice to say that this is an excellent and nervy character study. Well worth watching for the excellent use of suggestive, saturated colour tones.
The plot of Le Boucher is not particularly complex and it doesn't contain many twists. Instead its strength rises from its ability to make us care about Helene and Popaul, to empathise with their situation. A great deal of time is spent detailing their relationship, the times they spend together and the brutal fact that Helene simply doesn't desire emotional entanglement. The murders, when they occur, are almost ignored - nasty things lurking in the shadows, a hope that they'll stop. Little does Helene realise that she is driving Popaul to these acts, leaving him stranded with his demons and self-disgust. If only she could have reached out to him but, when she does, it's too little, too late.
A fundamental question here is whether Popaul can be considered culpable for his attacks. He certainly doesn't wish to express himself this way, internally disgusted at his behaviour, but no other outlet is available. Perhaps Helene is guilty for holding onto her solitude, with a result far worse than she could ever have imagined. Alternatively the blame could be laid with society for sending him to war, an individual already damaged by his father. Ultimately it is possible to condemn no one in Le Boucher, just to pity them for what might have been.