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Le Boucher, 1969
[The Butcher]

Audran/YanneThe discordant opening music of Le Boucher accompanies a series of curious limestone cave formations, and serves as a harbinger for the tragic events which are to unfold in this idyllic French countryside. Helene (Stephane Audran) is a beautiful, sophisticated school headmistress who moved to the region after a failed relationship. Popaul (Jean Yanne) has recently returned to his hometown after serving 15 years in the French army to assume responsibilities for his late father's butcher shop. During the wedding of Helene's colleague, Leon Hamel (Mario Beccara), Helene and Popaul form an immediate bond, fueled in part by alcohol, but also by mutual loneliness. Most of their free time is spent together: having dinner, going to the movies, hunting for mushrooms. They are both emotionally scarred: Helene, abandoned by her former lover, and Popaul, abused by his cruel father and a witness to the atrocities of war. As Popaul struggles to bury his troubled past, Helene also suppresses her pain by becoming emotionally withdrawn, unwilling to invest in a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, two savage murders are committed: the first, at the neighboring town of St. Albert; the second, by a cave at the outskirts of town. As the specter of death hovers ever closer to their quaint small town, can Helene and Popaul break free from their subconscious confines and find love and companionship in each other? Or will the killer surface within the community, threatening to destroy the fragile relationship between these two fractured souls?

Claude Chabrol crafts a taut and poignant tale of emotional damage in Le Boucher. Symbolically, the relational distance between Helene and Popaul is suggested through windows (as in Kieslowski's Red): Helene looks out from her studio above the school after their first encounter, Popaul looks into Helene's classroom, delivering a fresh cut of veal from the butcher shop, Popaul peers through the window of an unlit room in search of Helene. Furthermore, Popaul's preference for a lowered, student's chair in the studio also reflects Helene's unattainability for him, as he shyly looks up to see her face, trying to find connection in her polite countenance. Le Boucher is a subtly haunting portrait of people who are incapable of exorcising their own private demons - inflicting emotional violence behind a facade of civility - and, in the process, destroy themselves.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Une Affaire de Femmes, 1988
[The Story of Women]

During the darker days of German occupation, Marie Latour was guillotined for crimes against the country, one of the last women to be executed in France. In The Story of Women, a dispassionate narrator recounts childhood memories of Marie Latour, his mother, with seeming detachment. Marie (Isabelle Huppert) is a young, neglected wife struggling through the austerity of life with two young children. One evening, she finds a neighbor in a mustard bath attempting to terminate a pregnancy, and aids her in the task by using a crude device. Marie's face is inscrutable and her motivations are unclear, except perhaps that she needs the leftover bar of soap from the procedure. In gratitude, the neighbor offers her a record player. Soon, other desperate women knock on her door seeking help, and Marie's illicit enterprise begins to thrive. She befriends a prostitute named Lucie (Marie Trintignant) and offers her services to her "friends", which, inevitably evolves into providing rooms for their clients as well. The return of her lazy, unemployed husband, Paul (Francois Cluzet) proves to be a distraction from her lucrative, albeit accidental profession, and she attempts to remedy the situation by bribing an assistant to be his mistress. One day, a woman who had been ingesting poison to induce a miscarriage is convinced by her husband to go to Marie for help, and dies from complications. Her distraught husband commits suicide, leaving their young children to her sister's care. In a deeply moving scene, the sister returns to Marie's "clinic" with the orphaned children to relay the tragic news and settle the debt. In the end, Paul, incensed by his wife's financial independence and flagrant infidelity, reports her illegal activities to the authorities, where a series of hypocrisies, resigned inaction, and political humiliation sentence her to her death.

Claude Chabrol, noted for his prolific career as a director of psychological thrillers, transcends social commentary with pathos and humanity in this deeply disturbing story of imperfect people driven by circumstance into committing desperate acts. The narrative tone is even and uninflected, logical and precise, perhaps as a consequence of his mother's absence from his life. Marie's countenance (extraordinarily portrayed by the luminous Huppert) is remarkably opaque and instinctive, never betraying her thoughts or emotions. Transposed to modern-day, Marie Latour's actions no longer constitute the executionable crime for which she was condemned to die. Inevitably, only one injustice still remains, the story of a young boy who has lost his mother.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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La Ceremonie, 1995
[The Ceremony]

Huppert/BonnaireA young woman named Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is interviewed for a housekeeping position at the country estate of Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) and her family. Sophie is enigmatically succinct in her answers, but her references are highly complimentary, and she is immediately offered the job. However, from the onset, it is evident that there is something odd about Sophie's behavior. She has an instinctive, patent response of "I don't know" to most questions, even when the answer does not apply. She refuses to dust the books in the library, despite keeping the rest of the house impeccably clean. She prefers to wash the dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher. When she is given the opportunity to take driving lessons, she claims to have poor vision and declines the offer. Georges Lelievre (Jean-Pierre Cassel) sends her to an optometrist for an eye examination, but she avoids the appointment, and spends the afternoon shopping around town. One day, she is left a note on the kitchen table, and truth becomes evident - Sophie cannot read. In attempt to conceal her illiteracy from everyone, she becomes increasingly withdrawn from her employers, and the deception and lies compound. Inevitably, her friendship with an eccentric, interfering postal worker named Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a woman of dubious character, grows unnaturally close, and the relationship leads to an incomprehensible act.

Claude Chabrol explores the themes of isolation and loneliness in La Ceremonie. The film's opening credits roll against the landscape shot of Madame Lelievre's car traversing the empty road leading to the remote estate. In essence, the geographic location is a reflection of Sophie's alienation from the Lelievre family, as she attempts to keep her illiteracy a secret. Sophie's long walks to town and her affinity for watching television serve, not as pleasant diversions from the emptiness and boredom of the house, but as a means of distraction and evasion. Her relationship with the disreputable Jeanne stems from a mutual sense of maladjustment and disaffection. La Ceremonie is an elegant, haunting, and tragic tale of a woman driven by personal insecurity down a path of destruction and despair. It is the road to ruin.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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