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'Murderous Maids'

'Murderous Maids' a probe of troubled sisters and their crime

Friday, June 07, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

This simply told account of the Papin sisters, convicted of killing a mother and daughter in 1933 in Le Mans, France, is vivid proof that a film doesn't need expensive special effects or a throbbing score to horrify its viewers.

'Murderous Maids'

RATING: Unrated, R in nature for graphic sex and nudity

STARRING: Sylvie Testud, Julie-Marie Parmentier and Isabelle Renauld

DIRECTOR: Jean-Pierre Denis

WEB SITE: www.rialtopictures.com



This French film has neither. Instead, director Jean-Pierre Denis combines the effects of claustrophobic, shadowy interiors with the ferocious acting of Sylvie Testud to pull us imperceptibly into its grisly and bloody climax.

And while the psychological message Denis delivers is elemental at best, its effect is no less moving and disturbing.

The killings of Madame Lancelin and her adult daughter, Genevieve, were a shock to the conservative and class-conscious France of the early 1930s at a time when turmoil was brewing.

The economic effects of World War I and the worldwide depression sparked the rise of unions and the left wing, which were agitating for better working conditions.

The Papin sisters, despite their bloody deeds, eventually became symbols of class oppression. Writers from Jean Genet to Simone de Beauvoir saw the sisters as victims of their lowly state.

Director Denis, however, takes a more straightforward approach, stripping the sisters of any larger meaning and making them more human in the process.

What defined Christine and Lea, 28 and 21 at the time of the crime, was not political oppression, but emotional isolation. Mistreated and occasionally dumped into orphanages by their selfish mother, Clemence (Isabelle Renauld), the pair became inseparable.

In Denis' version, they are lovers as well.

As the older sister, Christine dominated her more passive sibling but was clearly scarred far deeper by her mother's abandonment. She sought a mother figure in Madame Lancelin, even calling her "Mum," but was betrayed by her employer's disdain and suspicion.

Testud's performance as the unhinged Christine gives the film its power as she shifts from meek, efficient maid to a wild-eyed, violent animal breaking out of her cage of subordination.

Julie-Marie Parmentier's Lea begins as an eager innocent corrupted by Christine's passionate attachment and caresses. While Christine initiates the crime, it's Lea who suggests its bloody conclusion with a trip to the kitchen knife drawer.

Denis suggests that what seemed to touch off Christine was her employer's unexpected interruption of her time alone with her sister.

With his painstaking re-creation of an austere and backward rural France, from the flushed faces of the working class to the dark, crumbling home interiors of the strapped upper class, Denis has crafted a richly textured picture of a nation with a battered soul, a place where violence is perhaps the only way to be heard.

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