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 working poor. 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.
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 the masters.
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, is threatened.
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 article.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murderous Maids rates: