It doesn’t take much of an imagination to guess this story
line. The succinctly titled film seemingly sums up the tragic
real-life story of the Papin sisters, maids who inexplicably
murdered two other women back in 1933.
Director and writer Jean-Pierre Denis didn’t have
to dig through obscure newspaper clippings to flesh out this
story. The Papin sisters were a cause-celebre in their day,
attracting the attention of French intellectuals who offered
up an assortment of theories to explain the motives of the
unusual murders. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre
and feminist author Simone de Beauvoir suggested the
inescapable French class system was to blame. Jacques
Lacan, noted psychiatrist and linguist, felt the Papin
family history of incest propelled the sisters to a heightened
state of dementia.
Denis’ screenplay interweaves these various ideas into a
riveting piece that suggests both of these theories contributed
to the notorious crime. Most of the story focuses on the older
sister, Christine ( Testud). Educated as a child at
the local convent, she one day she informs her mother she
wants to join the novitiate, but her mother slaps her hard
across the face and tells her to get a job.
Christine finds work as a maid, but she hates the mind-numbing
chores which include the formality of addressing her employers
in the third person. Her only happiness comes from spending
time with her younger sister Léa ( Parmentier).
When Léa gets older, she too must find work as a maid, and
Christine is able to convince her employer to hire her younger
sibling. The sisters share a room up in the attic and their
relationship evolves into an incestuous one. They are able
to provide for each other a refuge of escape from their lonely
and tedious work. Their bond becomes essential to their survival
because the mistress of the house is an impossible taskmaster.
Wearing white gloves, she wanders around the house wiping
her fingers along the furniture to ensure the sisters are
dusting properly, and she docks wages if she considers their
One evening their uptight employer leaves for a party, and
Christine and Léa waste little time knocking off early, and
again they start fooling around, this time in the bathtub.
Unfortunately their boss is pulling a fast one, and she returns
early, busting a panicked Christine, who hastily dons a robe
and rushes down the steps to prevent her from reaching the
bathroom. The dilemma is clear; not only are Christine and
her sister goofing off, they’re also about to be popped for
their taboo sexual proclivities. In a frenzied state, Christine
grabs a metal pitcher and begins busting heads wide open.
Murderous Maids attempts to tell all, but the effort
is undone by an ironic bit of information revealed in the
postscript. Both sisters were incarcerated for their crime
but Christine, clearly the more demented of the two, died
a few years later in a psychiatric prison. However, we learn
that Léa is still alive, living somewhere in France. Incapacitated
by a stroke, she is unable to tell her version of events.
What story would Léa tell us if she still could? Did the director
and writers of the script really get it right? This tantalizing
piece of information renders what would otherwise be a straightforward
film into a still bigger mystery. The stories locked inside
Léa’s head remain so close but will forever be left unsaid.