Murderous Maids


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The last time this story hit the screen, Joely Richardson was bashing Julie Walters's brains out with a poker in Sister My Sister (1994). What is it about the Papin girls that won't go away?

Sex, for one thing. Murder, for another. And how about religion?

Jean-Pierre Denis's latest version of this infamous, true life crime goes deeper into the background. There were three sisters, two of whom were packed off to a convent, because their mother had to work and their father had done a bunk. The eldest stays and becomes a nun. Christine (Sylvie Testud) doesn't and goes into service. There was nothing much else. This was the Thirties in Lyon and poor girls with a smattering of education had limited opportunities. Lea (Julie-Marie Parmentier), the youngest, follows a few years later.

Christine is obviously unhinged. When she was at the convent, she was totally different. Whatever happened between the one and the other, causes her to hate her mother, love her sister and despise her employers. Lea, on the other hand, has an innocent heart.

By widening the scope, the film ties itself in knots trying to unravel the dysfunctional nature of the Papin household and what it was that set Christine off. Genet's The Maids and Sister My Sister focused on the relationship between the two girls, the atmosphere in the house and the deadly incident itself. Rows with their mum and the man who lives with her only confuses the issue. It doesn't make Christine any more understandable.

The acting stands out and it is Parmentier, surprisingly, who leaves a lasting impression. The incestuous love scenes contain the semblance of a genuine passion that overrides salacious interest.

This is a tragedy, rather than "the most extreme crime committed by women, against women, on record." As Christine howls for Lea in the prison, it is the chilliest sound in the world.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2002
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Dramatisation of the famous French double murder.
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Director: Jean-Pierre Denis

Writer: Jean-Pierre Denis, Michele Petin, Paulette Houdyer

Starring: Sylvie Testud, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Isabelle Renauld, Francois Levantal, Dominique Labourier

Year: 2000

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: France


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