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Murderous Maids

Murderous Maids

Not rated, 94 min. Directed by Jean-Pierre Denis. Starring François Levanthal, Isabelle Renauld, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Sylvie Testud.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 16, 2002

Over the decades, “L'affaire Papin” has provided rich source material for scores of writers, dramatists, psychologists, and social analysts. It occurred in Le Mans, France, in 1933, when two maids, sisters Christine and Léa Papin, murdered their mistress and her daughter. The brutal murders were seemingly inexplicable, thus providing the seeds for the dozens of creative meditations that have followed. The event has inspired such writings as those by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre that draw on the class dissension inherent in the story, as well as a similarly themed play, The Maids, by Jean Genet, which was later made into a film starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York. Other recent works are the play and subsequent movie Sister My Sister, psychological essays by theorist Jacques Lacan, and Margaret Atwood's novel Captive. In Murderous Maids, the focus is on the psychological and the sexual. Christine (Testud) and Léa (Parmentier), along with their older sister Emilia were educated in a nunnery, and may have been victims of their father's sexual abuse. Emilia remains in the nunnery upon graduation, while Christine and the much younger Léa follow the career of their mother and begin working as household maids. Christine is the more dominant of the two, and it becomes clear that after a lifetime of being disappointed and abandoned by the people in her life, Léa has become Christine's only source of happiness. Eventually, their devotion to each other becomes sexual. Murderous Maids looks at the psychological weight that their indulgence in such an incestuous taboo might have played in their subsequent crime. Their employers are portrayed quite sympathetically, instead of the insensitive upper-class ogres that most class readings of the incident imagine. Yet for all the psychological penetration that the movie allows, the sisters' true motivation remains a cipher. Partly, this is due to the two stunning performances at the heart of this movie. Testud gives us a woman of intense but often bottled emotions, who may simply be intrinsically unhinged, while Parmentier's face and bearing can alternately look childish or womanly. Ultimately, the mystery that drives Murderous Maids remains just that: mysterious. After all the psychological entrée to these characters presented by the movie, the story comes to no satisfactory conclusion about their crime. The movie is also filmed in a straightforward, unembellished way that provides little emotional proximity for the viewer. Although, no doubt, an intentional anti-sensationalistic strategy, the tactic tends to make us feel uninvolved in their story. Murderous Maids never inspires more than an interested detachment.
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