Two sisters (Jodhi May as Leah & Joely Richardson as Christine), abnormally close & eventually hedonistically incestuous, begin as the ideal servants, seemingly appreciated by their stuffy self-important employer for their skills & quietude & even for their physical attractiveness.
They are maids for a widow, Madame Danzard (Julie Waters), & her daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield), who are eccentric in their own right. Though Madame Danzard has a lot of praise for her servants, there is something selfishly strange about her appreciation. Though praising her servants on some days, she is also quick to harass them for the most trivial of infractions.
She has denied Isabelle anything resembling a life, & even teases her cruelly with insinuations that they might take a trip to Paris, which they'll never do. Isabelle thus begins to pay more attention to the maids, lacking as she does any friends, but the class barrier never comes down between them.
Leah the younger sister is sweet but incomprehensibly inept, so exaggeratedly innocent that she seems quite childish & prone to terrors. Christine, five years older, is more severe, with some anger & bitterness not all that well bottled up.
Even before these two young sisters enter into a full blown incestuous affair they're rather unpleasantly peculiar, neurotic, & furtive. Their sex scenes together, however, are a bit frenetic & filmed as softcore porn, a level of sexploitation which feels quite at odds with the dull Masterpiece Theater tediousness of the larger portion of the film.
Except for the frenetic sex, all the characters otherwise move through the household as though in an underwater dream, slowly getting crazier & crazier.
There is further dissonance in that it is all building to a trashy horror climax. Madame Danzard finally lets her snooty sense of class superiority permit her to be become abusive of her servants, & they respond with grotesque violence.
The insufficiently foreshadowed transformation of Madame Danzard into a screeching harridan unfortunately does not work. Because there's no bridge between her sense of noblesse oblige toward lesser people & her sudden eagerness to be foul-mouthed toward such lowly worms, this weakens the bridge between the sisters' withdrawn nature erupting into an exaggeratedly vicious response to the verbal abuse.
The film's excuse for being so totally gosh awful is that it's based on an historical crime & being "true" makes it harder to pick on it for being crappy & unbelievable. Even the "fact" that all the characters are French & it takes place in 1930s France, but all the actors are British & nothing seems the least bit French, makes it all so darned phony.
The curiosity of the film being an all-female cast with women also at the helm as writer, producer, director seems not to have diminished the capacity of cinema to regard women as either monsters or sex objects, if not both.
The acting & the cinematography are excellent, but the script & story are shallow & lurid. The diverse elements of the film -- seriously acted period drama, exploitation soft-lighting porn, trashy slasher horror -- just don't come together as a convincing whole. Unless soft-core pretty-pretty lesbian incest delights you, I seriously doubt you'll find these clashing elements appealing.
The Papin sisters' famous 1933 crime is also the subject of Murderous Maids (Les Blessures assassines, 2000) which shows Christine & Lea in a much more human light, not neurotic dark creatures seemingly predestined to do wrong, but human beings capable of human interactions, & reaching a very human breaking point.
Both films it should be understood are interpretative works of fiction & do not adhere to careful specific facts of the sisters' lives, but in broad strokes Murderous Maids has far more historical elements.
Young Lea (Julie-Marie Parmentier) may be slow-witted or merely overly dependent. Older Christine (Sylvie Testud) has been Lea's protector since tothood, & neither of them have quite matured out of these long-set roles. In time their mutual dependency develops into furtive incest, here treated with some degree of sympathy.
The historical record suggests childhood emotional & possibly sexual abuse laid the pathways for the sisters' development, & modern speculation is that Christine may additionally have been descending into schizophrenia or other form of madness, with passive Lea following Christine's lead in all things, even murder.
Murderous Maids constructs its tale in such a manner that class division, life experience, & schizophrenia are all possibilities. The story goes to considerable length to entirely humanize the sisters & show them in many settings forming a tapestry of their lives, unlike Sister My Sister which reduces them to sexualized loons completely disconnected from the real world.
Murderous Maids is vastly more realistic, less intent on erotification & marginalization of these young women. How small burdens & turmoils grow over time into trauma, & how minor eccentricities turn to madness, is credibly unveiled.
Christine is in revolt against authority, class, sexism, rape, moral taboos, her mother, her employers, & society even before she begins to have audio hallucinations. As acted out by Sylvia Testud, she is a richly complex character & not just a maniac. Her performance is restrained & composed of inner struggles & coping strategies. Hers is a great acting achievement.
Artful & understated until the graphic conclusion & the emotionally harrowing prison sequence, if only one filmic version of the Papin sisters' crime is to be viewed, this should be the one.
The popular/political rather than psychological explanation for why these two maids killed their mistress & her daughter is class division, & in some odd manner the incestuous murderesses have been French symbols of revolution, & a play about the sisters written by Jean Genet focuses almost exclusively on this symbolic inspiration.
The Jean Genet play is recorded on film as The Maids (1974). Glenda Jackson & Susanna York play the killers Solage & Claire, symbols in a Marxist fantasy of the revolt of the serving class, pitted against the bourgeois "Madame" (Vivien Merchant) who is likewise more symbolic than real.
Despite its fine cast no one makes the characters credible & it's hard to tell how much of the campiness was intended by Genet. A filmed play loses its immediacy & rarely substitutes well for a feature film, but it's a handily available dvd since the opportunity to see a live production may never arise.
By focusing on political satire & camping up the characters as two peas in a nutsack concocting numerous plans of revenge while privately playing out master/slave scenarios with each other, it comes off as a bad joke, highly regarded though the play might be. It must be enjoyed for the politics rather than the characters or the crime.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl