Murderous Maids

Year: 2000. Running time: 94 minutes. Color. In French with optional English subtitles. Directed by Jean-Pierre Denis. Starring Sylvie Testud and Julie-Marie Parmentier. From Home Vision Entertainment.

Review by David Gurevich

It is my guess that had it not been for Jean-Paul Sartre, that indefatigable plotter and promoter of himself and the like-minded, the world would live in sweet ignorance of the Papin Sisters. But it was Sartre who pushed Jean Genet, one of the many enfants terribles that the French culture has foisted upon the world, and Genet wrote The Maids, a play remotely based on the Papin murder case, and a seminal work in the canon of the Theater of the Absurd.

The case shook up France as violently as a scandal could in 1933, in the pre-TV era. It was the O.J. case of its time. The circumstances were simple: in the provincial town of Le Mans, two maids -- Christine and Lea Papin -- violently murdered their employer, Mme. Lancelin, and her daughter. Once again, the time was 1933, and violence had still not come out in the open, especially in a rigidly stratified society that France was at the time. No wonder that bourgeois press was aghast, rating it along with Bolshevism, while a poet maudit like Genet would grab it as a chance to stick it to the ruling class. At the end, a poet often wins, and so the case went down in history as Battleship Potemkin, French country style. In the midst of the high-falutin' smash-the-villas Marxist rhetoric that has often distinguished the French artistic contributions, the critics and students praying at the Genet shrine seemed oblivious to the fact that Christine Papin was crazy as a loon.

Now, finally, Jean-Pierre Denis has attempted to put it all together in Murderous Maids. Denis is not a great director yet, but he is an honest and meticulous one, building up Christine Papin as a three-dimensional character and trying to incorporate all the vagaries of her unhappy life that she vented in one orgy of blood. Denis' technique is strikingly old-fashioned. This is good old realistic film-making that incorporates in equal part attention to physical detail (without turning it into a home-furnishing Merchant-Ivory display) and to the social climate of Le Mans (beautifully photographed by Jean-Marc Fabre) and the Papin family. You feel you're reading a Zola novel; so scrupulous is Denis' realism, there is even no incidental music.

Of course social factors are present, with the daily routines of pleasing Madame who walks around with a white glove to catch a speck of dust. But by modern standards, the Papins were a dysfunctional family from the start, with the father sexually abusing the older sister, who has a nervous breakdown and ends up as a nun, and the mother who tries to live off her two remaining daughters by finding them domestic jobs, which at the same time will keep them out of the way of her attempts to land a husband. Hey, times are tough all over. Denis doesn't deny the social influence, especially that of Catholic Church, whose powerful presence dominates the lives of the characters. When Madame compliments Christine on her neatness, she says, "Well, the nuns taught me." It's hard not to think of the convent as a prep school for maids.

Christine, finely portrayed by Sylvie Testud, whose combination of toughness and nervous fragility brings to mind the young Isabelle Huppert, is desperately casting about looking for an anchor, and the only one she finds is her kid sister Lea. Soon the sisterly love goes erotic, though those looking for steamy sex will be disappointed. While the bedroom scenes are all emotion, rather than the mechanics of porn, Denis once again tries to be as balanced as possible: he does not shy away from seeing Christine as a ruthless dominatrix, who, at the very whiff of competition from Madame's daughter, jealously tries to stamp it out.

Madame gets naturally suspicious at the sight of the two cots side by side, with only one of them slept in. And so, one night when Madame and her daughter show up at home too early, the girls are on the verge of getting caught -- and Christine lets it rip with a cast-iron skillet. Poor Lea, whose character is every bit as complicated -- she spends the whole film torn between sisterly/erotic love and yearning towards normalcy -- follows suit.

In the prison scenes that wrap up the film, Denis' direction and Testud's acting get to a high point in raw emotion. The sight of Christine running her tongue on the cell wall to make marks of the crosses as she wails for her beloved sister, whom the wardens eventually bring over just to calm Christine down -- and then Christine pounces on her again like a predator -- "Say yes! Say yes!" You can read into this anything you want -- love, faith, desperate longing for human warmth -- but you can't help feeling a squeeze in your heart for a life ruined by… Life itself, perhaps. Like Gus Van Sant in his Elephant, a film light years away in aesthetic terms, Denis seems to acknowledge that one explanation, however convenient, is never enough.

The DVD comes complete with the usual trailers, American and French, a reprint of a 1933 Vanity Fair article by Janet Flannery that recounts the actual events, and interviews with the director and his star. Denis comes off as charmingly non-French in his modesty, acknowledging that his early juggling of two careers -- directing while trying to hold on to a steady job with the Customs -- is not typical for a French director. Perhaps that's the key to the lack of pretense and intelligent humanity that make his film such an achievement.

Murderous Maids is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in a widescreen anamorphic transfer that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Special features: interviews with actress Sylvie Testud and director Jean-Pierre Denis; original French and American theatrical trailers; trailer from the feature The Maids, based on the classic Jean Genet play; Janet Flannery’s 1933 Vanity Fair article recounting the actual events; and photos from newspapers of the time. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.