Judge Dan Mancini swears it's a coincidence he gave this movie about sisterly incest a score of 69...seriously.
Bound for life. Bound in blood.
Sister My Sister is director Nancy Meckler's exploration of the real-life 1933 murder of a Le Mans woman and her daughter by their two maids, Christine and Léa Papin. The crime was a media sensation in France, becoming that country's equivalent of the Jack the Ripper or Lizzie Borden murders. It ascended into mythology because its lurid violence, class rage, mental illness, and lesbian incest made it a tale worth repeating. Indeed, it has been interpreted a number of times on film, from 1963's Les Abysses, to 1974's The Maids (based on Jean Genet's stage play of the same name), to 2000's Murderous Maids. Meckler's film, like The Maids, is an anglicized version of the story, though it ditches the wild-eyed and cackling camp of Glenda Jackson and Susannah York's performances in favor of more psychological intimacy and a dour tone.
Scripted by Wendy Kesselman, based on her stage play My Sister in This House, the film opens with Christine (Joely Richardson, The Patriot) securing a domestic position for Léa (Jodhi May, Tipping the Velvet) in the Danzard household in which she works. Madame Danzard (Julie Walters, Calendar Girls) is a widow who lives with her dowdy adult daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield, The Girl in a Swing). The old lady's fastidiousness is a comfortable form of authority for the convent-raised Christine, but proves unsettling for Léa. The younger girl's dependence upon her sister gives Christine a sense of power and control she protects by severing contact with their mother, whom they'd been visiting on Sundays. As the girls' insular relationship turns sexual, the quality of their work declines, provoking Madame Danzard's ire and setting the sisters on a deadly path.
Sister My Sister quickly squanders any sense of dread established by its opening shots of a bloody crime scene by making Madame Danzard a hateful martinet and her daughter a dull ugly duckling. We know from the beginning the duo is destined to die, but the film never convinces us to care. In an act of narrative convenience, Kesselman and Meckler make the Danzards boorish gossips—much of what we learn about the sisters is from the ladies' petty conversations about them. It's a cop-out that leaves the film feeling more literary than dramatic or cinematic. As a matter of fact, all four principals spend an inordinate amount of time talking about what they're thinking and feeling, and too little time simply doing or being. Christine's violent streak, for instance, is clumsily introduced in a histrionics-laden conversation between the sisters. It's analyzed and intellectualized, making the sisters far too self-aware to be believably pushed into action as drastic and destructive as murder. Part of the allure of the Papin case for the French is the Marxist implications of proletarian maids lashing out at their bourgeois mistresses, but Kesselman and Meckler have made the girls so self-obsessed and analytical they come off as bourgeois themselves. The real Papins were nearly illiterate and raised in terrible deprivation, but the Christine and Léa of Sister My Sister seem like young ladies who grew up in the 'burbs and resent the hassles of trying to make a living on their own. But, then again, the film doesn't feel at all French. It feels like a British drawing room mystery. Given the fact all of the specifics of the Papin case have been elided—the sisters' last name is never mentioned, Danzard was not the name of the real murder victims, the house is not specifically placed in Le Mans—one wonders why Kesselman and Meckler didn't transport the tale to a country manor outside London. The actresses are so thoroughly British, the title card announcing the story is set in 1932 France seems incongruous.
Sister My Sister isn't a complete disaster. As a matter of fact, it's got enough going for it to make its shortcomings all the more aggravating. Kesselman and Meckler smartly keep the drama focused on the four main characters, pushing Christine and Léa's mother entirely off-screen, for instance, by using Madame Danzard's selfish manipulation of Isabelle as a mirror of the sisters' relationship with their mother. It's a narrative leanness rooted in the piece's origins as a stage play, and the fact Meckler chose to keep her film almost entirely cloistered in the Danzard house in the midst of these four women gives it a stifling emotional and psychological tone. Unfortunately, this structural and tonal precision is undermined by the over-abundance of dialogue that describes and explains what we ought to be left to feel in the marrow of our bones. In the end, the movie's greatest strength is the sexual relationship between Christine and Léa. Meckler handles it with amazing delicacy, yet it's steeped in a palpable charge and danger. The sexual consummation between Christine and Léa is cross-cut with an emotionally escalating game of Solitaire between the Danzards in a way that is almost high camp but somehow works in the context of the film's somber tone. If the entire film were as well-executed, it would be a masterpiece.
Koch Lorber's DVD release of Sister My Sister is, well, pathetic. The film has garnered a cult following and fans are bound to be disappointed with its treatment here. Not only is it presented in a crowded, full screen format (the theatrical ratio was 1.85:1), but it appears to have been struck from an old master. The image is fuzzy, grainy, and dark, and the print is fairly dirty throughout. It fairs a bit better on the audio front, sporting a clean Dolby 5.1 surround mix as well as a stereo surround track. The 5.1 track isn't much more dynamic than the stereo as this is a dialogue-driven film with most of the audio located in the front soundstage, but even the score benefits little from the more elaborate mix.
There are no subtitles and the only supplements are a trailer and text-based biographies for Walters, Richardson, May, and Thursfield. A little background information on the Le Mans murders would have been a nice touch.
Sister My Sister is a smart, well-acted movie that overplays its hand. It could have been a compelling story told with subtlety but is ruined by its insistence on explaining itself. Too bad. Couple its narrative shortcomings with an atrocious DVD presentation and it's easy to recommend you steer clear of this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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