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Murderous Maids
A Rialto Pictures Release
Official Site
Director: Jean-Pierre Denis
Producers: Michèle Halberstadt and Laurent Petin
Written by: Jean-Pierre Denis and Michèle Halberstadt; based on the book L’affaire Papin by Paulette Houdyer
Cast: Sylvie Testud, Isabelle Renauld, François Levanthal, Dominique Labourier, Jean-Gabriel Nordmann, Marie Donnio


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 work substandard.

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.

—Nancy Semin


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