Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Absorbing and chilling, this unsentimental account of a scandalous murder in Le Mans, France in
1933 has been the subject of films, plays and even operas. It has reportedly been used often as
an indictment of class inequity, with the murdering Papin sisters enlisted as martyrs for the
Director Jean-Pierre Denis' version sticks to the psychological facts and produces a tale of
a madwoman, her incestuous relations with her sister, and the hostilities servile labor.
The gory crime that results must have been the toast of the Theater of Grand Guignol.
The acting is excellent, especially an amazing talent, Sylvie Testud. HVe not only gives us a 1933
Vanity Fair article about the killings to put the subject in perspective, but lengthy
interviews with the director and his intense female star.
Christine Papin (Sylvie Testud) is unstable and violent, even as a convent school
girl. Her older sister escapes their controlling mother Clémence (Isabelle Renauld) by
becoming a nun; Mother is a domestic servant and looks on her daughters mainly as sources of
additional income. Christine goes from employer to employer because of her rebellious nature; the
haughty women she works for expect maids to be incredibly servile yet put on an act of perpetual,
sincere gratitude. Christine only finds happiness when she's able to co-work with her younger
sister Léa. After changing employers and fighting battles with mother over rights and
salaries, the pair begin a long and outwardly successful job with the Lincelans, where they
develop a secret incestuous Lesbian relationship. One night, the suspicious Mme. Lincelan
(Dominique Labourier) contrives to find out if her maids are really sleeping together, catches them in
the act, and all hell breaks looks.
This is a fascinating movie that could be called Diary of a Madwoman. Sticking close to the
details, it tells the true story without editorial elaboration. Christine Papin was a perfect
maid with vicious tendencies boiling underneath her studied calm exterior. Her sister Léa
was an unintelligent girl who drew unkind comments from her employers.
We get a good hard look at French class distinctions between the wars, of rich housewives that
use white gloves to check for dust and make sure the maid's quarters are neither heated or using
high-wattage light bulbs. Servants are treated like trained animals, cooed over and slighted in
conversations they can overhear. The relationship implies that all power and authority lies with
Socially volatile viewers may take this state of affairs as an excuse for servants everywhere to
slay their masters, but Murderous Maids isn't interested in revolution. Christine's hate
killing is as irrational as it is violent. Her mother takes advantage of them, but Christine's
reaction is to monopolize her younger sister's affections. Getting the idea that she can have
Léa legally emancipated from maternal bondage, Christine makes a mess of her interview with
the mayor by throwing a hysterical fit. The mayor's assistant calls her a nut-case; he doesn't know
the half of it.
The fateful night of murder is one of the screwiest series of events ever in a murder case. In a
sense, a faulty repair job on an electric iron is to blame. Also Madame Lincelan's curious eagerness
to confirm her suspicions about the relationship between her two maids. But mostly, it's Christine
herself. Getting caught doing what she's doing in that society is no trivial matter, but the
outrage for Christine is that the one area of her life that belongs to her alone, Léa,
The brief battle royale between one maid and two proper ladies is quite a shockeroo after 85 minutes
of restraint and propriety. The maids' ferocity in mutilating the bodies is shown in just enough
detail to give us the general idea without going into H.G. Lewis territory. After that, separation
makes Léa into a catatonic, and Christine into a raving maniac. It's as if they had become
a binary individual. The courts discounted all the psychology and sentenced them both as premeditated
murderesses. France must have felt the same way about maids turning their mistresses into shish-kebab, as
that wealthy Romans did about Spartacus.
The film shows a lot of Christine and Léa's intense lovemaking. It's justified on the
basis that it represented their escape from the harshness of life
and reality. That they were violators of most every taboo on the books must have made them
feel all the more alienated to society's rules.
Sylvie Testud is a major talent and an actress of star quality. We fix on her expressions,
and even when there are no answers to her character's behavior, we don't feel cheated. Julie-Marie
Parmentier doesn't seem as stupid as the records indicate. Maybe the records exaggerated.
Isabelle Renauld is the mother on whom another movie might heap blame, but she's shown to be
in her own social-emotional trap as well, terrified for a future alone and loveless. Dominique
Renauld is the eternal uppity woman of property that will always make the society pages while
striking the right attitudes and having the right opinions; her poor Mme. Lincelan was the wrong
woman in the wrong place at the wrong time.
HVe's DVD of Murderous Maids is immaculate, unlike the Lincelans' upstairs landing. The
colors pop and the period costumes and mansion interiors couldn't look better. The extras are
great. Testud and director Denis each have their own substantial interview sections where they're
able to express a whole range of ideas. Testud is as bright as she looks, and comes off as an
acting firebrand in her own right. There are three trailers, the French and American ones for
Murderous Maids and a campy earlier film called The Maids with Glenda Jackson and
Susannah York chewing scenery in scenes from a play by Jean Genet.
The Vanity Fair article is reprinted on the insert. It's both insightful and sensitive to
the subject of the actual scandalous murder, something we didn't expect to read in a 1933 magazine
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murderous Maids rates:
Supplements: interviews, trailers, Vanity Fair article
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 23, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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