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Murderous Maids

     It was 1933, too early for the Hitchcockian warning about danger at the dark top of the stairs, when, in the French town of Le Man, a bourgeois housewife, Mme. Lancin, and her adult daughter, Genevieve, ascended to the attic quarters to check on what their servants, the Papin sisters, were up to. What did they peep at that day? Something sordid, carnal, unimaginable? Whatever, the invaded siblings, Christine and Lea, turned on their masters like frenzied Furies, hacking them to death, mutilating the beet-red bodies.

     Just your typical lesbian incest murder mystery, with Marxist/Freudian overtones? Murderous Maids is the latest in an exhaustive run of takes on this infamous case, from Jean Genet's ritual drama, The Maids, through impassioned essays by Sartre and De Beauvoir, from Margaret Atwood's novel, Captive, through movie variants. One film is based directly on the story, Nancy Meckler's Sister My Sister (1994). Three others seem inspired by it with their symbiotic two-girl psycho killers: Rafael Zielinsky's Fun (1993), Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994), Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie (1995).

     Alone among the film dramas, Murderous Maids, directed by France's Jean-Pierre Denis, has an allegiance to the actual facts of the case. It's based on a 1996 book reconstructing the crime, L'affaire Papin by Paulette Houdyer. Characters in this movie, including the murderers and murdered, carry the names of the real-life people. The film also goes back in time, starting with the unhappy, have-not childhood of the Papins. Christine, the older, and Lea are forced by their indifferent mother into servitude, farmed out at her convenience from one stultefying hiring to another. Employment by the ill-fated Lancin family is their last dead-end job.

     Murderous Maids leaps ahead of other versions of the story with the explicitness of the sex: bold, hot, two barebreasted sisters lying atop each other in their hellpit of a tiny room, adorned only with a cross on the wall. "Jesus, you forgave Mary Magdalene," Christine prays at church. Despite being made in the most skillful, proficient way, Murderous Maids is a film difficult to really like: a cold story told coolly, with a heroine, Christine (Sylvie Testud), who is hard, humorless, pathological, a walking cherry bomb.

(July, 2002)


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