Murder in Le Mans
The 1933 murder of a bourgeois woman and her daughter by their two maids, sisters Christine and Léa Papin, was the first modern media frenzy in France, the "crime of the century." Because of the mystery surrounding the motives behind the crime, the brutality of the killings, the insanity of the murderesses, and the scandal of their incestuous lesbian relationship, the Papin sisters have become burned into the French collective consciousness.
There have been numerous artistic interpretations of the gruesome crime, most notably Jean Genet's 1947 play The Maids, which inspired a 1974 English-language film adaptation starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, as well as an opera by Peter Bengtson called Jungfrurna (1993). Other film adaptations include Nikos Papatakis' Les Abysses (1963) and Nancy Meckler's Sister My Sister (1994).
Despite the risks involved in covering territory already well-covered, writer-director Jean-Pierre Denis' Murderous Maids, which uses Paulette Houdyer's historical novel as its primary source, is more narratively and psychologically satisfying than previous artistic interpretations. It's a surprisingly fresh take on an old story.
Facts of the Case
Teenage sisters Emilia and Christine Papin are sent to a convent after having been raised most of their lives, due to their mother's apathy, by their aunt Isabelle. There, Emilia feels called by God and becomes a nun. Experiencing no such calling, Christine (Sylvie Testud) returns to live with her mother and younger sister Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier).
Motivated in large part by a desire to escape her mother, the poorly-educated Christine takes on a series of jobs as a maid. Christine proves herself an organized and diligent servant, but her career is marred by spells of pathological obstinacy and insubordination that lead to her being fired and having to seek employment in new households. When Léa enters her late teens, Christine gets her hired in the households in which she works, in part so that she can spend more time with the sister she loves and in part as an act of defiance against their mother—Léa's affections soon become the tool through which Christine punishes her mother for her past neglect. When Christine's obsessive love for her sister turns sexual, the younger girl—emotionally dependent and naïve to a fault—doesn't rebuff the advances.
When Christine is hired into the Lincelan household, she takes the first opportunity to win employment for her sister there. Her possessiveness of Léa reaches a peak as she arranges their days off in such a way the younger girl won't be able to visit their mother. Léa finds herself trying to mediate an impossible situation, Christine's grip on reality slipping at the slightest hint her control of the girl might be in jeopardy. Though the Lincelans prove to be the kindest family for which the girls have worked, Madame Lincelan senses an odd tension in the girls' relationship, and soon suspects the incestuous affair.
When Madame Lincelan nearly catches the sisters mid-tryst one evening, she calls Christine on the carpet for her deception and depravity. Christine lashes out in the most hideous and violent fashion imaginable, brutally murdering Madame Lincelan and her daughter, and shaking the town of Le Mans to its core.
Previous artistic adaptations of the Le Mans murders have usually pandered to audiences' tastes for the lurid and sensational, or applied reductive Marxist interpretations to the tale. Jean-Pierre Denis wisely recognized that the story's deepest appeal nearly 70 years after the crime is to be found in psychological speculation. Advancements in the field of psychology make possible fresh theories about motives and mental illness, while the fog of time continues to deny definitive answers. What we're left with is a complex web of causality: class resentment, mental illness, moral guilt, and parental neglect may all have played a role. But how any or all of these factors worked on Christine Papin, and what triggered her killing spree we'll never know for certain. By playing with this ambiguity and resisting the urge to resolve it, Denis fashions a film that is more fascinating than a titillating story of sister sex or a portrait of a proletarian thrust into an act of sadistic revolution against her bourgeois employers (to be fair to Marxists, it was the French court who, in their absurd ruling, created the myth that the sisters weren't mentally ill and the crime was a premeditated act solely motivated by class resentment).
In the film's first act, Denis presents a classic portrait of a traumatic childhood. Christine's father is absent, her mother apathetic. Her aunt tires of caring for Christine and her sister Emilia and sends them off to a convent. As a young adult, Christine learns Emilia, now a nun, was raped by their father. It all begins to feel like the trite calculus of pop psychology's cult of victimhood until Denis introduces the real and tangible specter of mental illness. Instead of a simple chain of causality, Christine's act of depravity results from a psyche double-skewed by childhood neglect and psychotic episodes resulting from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or who knows what (it's doubtful we'll ever know what was wrong with her). It's when, as a maid, Christine begins to have episodes of quiet aggression which manifest in a silent and dazed refusal to do as her employers order, that the film takes an ominous turn. After all, we know where it's all leading. For a film that is ostensibly a character study, not a horror flick, I walked away with the same heebie-jeebies I felt the first time I saw Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Knowing the film's murders actually happened added immeasurably to the sense of dread and horror.
In crafting his film, Denis makes the keen observation that the essential task of a maid is to create the illusion of order, masking the chaos that attends any group of human beings living together in a household. The desire to maintain order, and to be recognized for her skill at doing so, is at the center of Christine's pathology. Her relationship with Léa isn't about sex but control, a way for Christine to manipulate their emotional attachment—if she wasn't chosen for affection by her mother, or for rape by her father, or for the nun's life by God, she's determined to ensure by any means necessary that she's chosen for adoration by her younger sister. But there's no cause to worry that Denis has completely tossed out the class sensibilities that characterized previous Marxist interpretations in favor of psycho-babble: the sister's sex might also be viewed as Christine's creation of a personal order that defies the conventional mores of the bourgeoisie by whom she is employed. Ultimately, it's Christine's inability to hide the incestuous relationship from Madame Lincelan, and the lady's moral rejection of it, that triggers the murder. "You've tricked us with your saintly airs. You disgust me," Madame Lincelan tells Christine before the girl unleashes her wrath. A maid's job is also to be invisible, and Madame Lincelan sees past the image of unobtrusive perfection Christine has labored so diligently to create. "I've been blind for too long," she screams at the girl, a perverse irony considering the historical Christine Papin blinded her victims in the most grisly fashion, scooping out their eyes with her bare fingers.
Considering the current vogue in French cinema for graphic depiction of sex and violence (think Catherine Breillat's Romance  or Coralie Virginie Despentes' Baise-Moi ), Denis shows surprising restraint on both fronts, without soft-pedaling either. The sex scenes lack any prurient appeal. They're more intent on revealing the nature and development of the girls' relationship than their naked bodies. The climactic murder is carefully edited to be just graphic enough to allow our minds to fill in the blanks with images far more harrowing than Denis could likely have captured on film. The scene is horrifying mostly because its violence emerges out of character, rather than functioning as a plot contrivance. On a purely visual level, the aftermath of the murders, which looks like gruesome documentary footage of a real crime scene, is far more intense than the act itself.
In keeping with the dichotomy between order and chaos at the center of the film's story, Denis and cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre stick mostly to simple, fairly static, formal compositions that adhere to traditional film language conventions. But in moments of high pique, they throw shaky handheld shots at us, or frame their actors unconventionally in order to heighten the sense of psychological instability. It's a simple but effective approach. This DVD presents their work at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced. It's a balanced, natural image that leaves little to complain about.
In a move that contributes in surprising ways to the film's sense of psychological dread, Denis chose to have no score to accompany or editorialize on his images. The decision makes perfect sense since Denis' embracing of ambiguity, rather than trying to resolve it, is what makes the work complex and satisfying. Audio on the DVD is Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Surround in French. While the track is almost entirely dialogue, it's vibrant, free of hiss, and the entire soundstage is used well to create atmosphere.
Extras include a nine-minute interview with star Sylvie Testud, whose performance in the film I can't praise highly enough. It's no easy task to bring a full measure of humanity to a character, while also honoring the story's need to leave her motives and demons a bit of a mystery. Testud's work is phenomenal.
Jean-Pierre Denis provides an eight-minute interview in which he discusses previous interpretations of the Papin case, his approach to filming violence, and the Le Mans murders' role in the introduction of psychoanalysis into courtrooms. It's brief but interesting.
The French theatrical trailer and U.S. trailer for Murderous Maids is provided, as well as a trailer for 1974's The Maids, starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York. Inclusion of the last trailer is odd, but the difference in tone between the austere Murderous Maids and sensational The Maids actually makes for decent entertainment.
The insert booklet contains a lengthy essay about the murders and the Papin sisters' trial by Janet Flanner, originally published in Vanity Fair in 1933. It provides excellent background, and its analysis is fascinating because of its proximity to the actual events.
Murderous Maids is an excellent adaptation of a wickedly fascinating story that leaves plenty of room for head-scratching and theorizing.
The Papin sisters are guilty. This DVD is not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Sylvie Testud Interview
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