The Papin sisters first made headlines in February of 1933 as two saintly maids who, on a dark night in the provincial French town of Le Mans, mercilessly slaughtered both their employer’s wife and daughter in a bizarre rage. Since then, the duo has been the subject of numerous books and countless psychological studies.
Most recently, they’ve appeared as the enigmatic center of director Jean-Pierre Denis’s 2000 film “Murderous Maids (Les Blessures Assassines).”
Based on the book “L’affaire Papin” by Michele Halberstadt and Laurent Petin, Denis’s evocative picture chronicles the frequently debated events leading up to Christine and La Papin’s horrific rampage. We’re first introduced to young Christine via a short recap of her troubled childhood where she attends a convent during the years surrounding World War I.
Upon voicing plans of following in her older sister Emilia’s footsteps and becoming a nun, she’s assaulted with a barrage of insults from her mother, who has already concocted plans of forcing her daughter into a tragic life of servitude. Flash forward several years later to meet a much older Christine ? played by Sylvie Testud ? working as a housekeeper in a bourgeois home.
Victimized by the incessant demands of imperious employers who can’t even remember her name, Christine finds solace in her aloof younger sister, of whom she’s immensely protective. In an act of rare kindness, their mother allows them to work together at the same household.
It’s there that the sisters’ intimate relationship blossoms into one of an incestuous nature.
The film’s astounding potency lies in the chilling minimalism of Testud’s captivating portrayal of Christine, a performance that earned her a Csar Award for “Most Promising Actress.” After watching the film once, I couldn’t help but feel compelled to watch it a second time in order to focus more intently on the way Testud’s stoic demeanor conceals the insanity and pent-up fury festering underneath Christine.
The fact that there is no music in the film, coupled with Denis’ subtly suffocating camera work, effectively instills Denis’s film with a gritty, constricting authenticity that will slowly squeeze the air from your lungs.
“A master is three people,” Christine instructs her younger sister, “the one he is, the one others think he is, and the one he believes he is. Always address the last one.”
Denis’ graceful treatment of the evils of social inequality will elicit a profound sympathy for these girls-turned-butchers. The only happiness life offers them is each other and the rapturous sexual endeavors they reserve for late night encounters in their employer’s attic.
This oasis from relentless misery becomes Christine’s sole escape from her burgeoning aggression. When this last vestige of hope is threatened by the unexpected return of the Madame and daughter, Christine’s once dormant rage is unleashed.
However, the inevitable explosive retaliation enacted by these sisters is by no means a conscious decision.
By film’s end, the incapacitating hostility gradually induced by her life of slavery seems to render Christine as helpless and unwitting as her victims.
The unspeakable savagery that eventually bursts forth will not merely shock, but also evoke mystifying confusion. As the siblings carry out their final deed under faint crimson glow, one will most likely wonder how it’s possible for such ostensible innocence to morph without warning into such incomprehensible unprovoked carnage.
At the very least, you will become painfully aware that what you’re watching is not the whimsical French lesbian equivalent of “Mr. Belvedere.”
“Murderous Maids” makes its Rochester premiere Saturday, Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. in the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House.