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Murderous Maids (Les Blessures assassines)

The 1933 murders committed by sisters Christine and Léa Papin shocked France and provided lots of juicy conversational fodder for the intellectual elite. After all, one does take one's domestic help rather for granted — so when the two unassuming French maids bludgeoned, stabbed, and mutilated their employers, it raised a lot of questions about what sort of emotions were seething behind the sullen curtsies of the household staff. The incident fascinated big thinkers of the time like Simone de Bouvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and it inspired Jean Genet's class-struggle play "The Maids" as well as a small handful of films (including Nancy Meckler's 1994 drama Sister My Sister). Jean-Pierre Denis' take on the story is far from sensational, zeroing in on the undeniable nuttiness of the elder Christine (Sylvie Testud), which was inflamed by the fundamental cruelty of her life in servitude. Lectured repeatedly by their mother, Clémence (Isabelle Renauld), that this life of floor scrubbing, laundry, and subservience is the natural order of things, Christine feels trapped and abandoned — first by her absent father (who, adding insult to injury, she finds out had raped one of her sisters) and then by her older sister, Emilia, who escapes her expected fate by becoming a nun. So Christine possessively clings to the younger Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier) as they move through employment at several upper-class homes, supporting each other through the cruel, daily grind of service. Christine's overly intense love for Léa transmogrifies from the sisterly to the carnal, however, and eventually the slightly simple Léa becomes her sister's lover. When the two find work with the Lincelan family they are, ironically, treated with the most respect of any of their employers — but the Lincelans (who, despite their best intentions, still treat their maids as, well, servants) don't realize that the rage-filled Christine is a ticking time bomb. And when they unexpectedly arrive home one evening to find the two sisters en flagrante, it's Lizzie Borden time. Murderous Maids, despite its lurid title, is a quiet, dry film marked more by the performances of the two leads than by the sensational subject matter. Testud gives a brilliantly restrained performance as Christine, her simmering fury bubbling just beneath placid smiles. Parmetier, as Léa, evinces a doughy sort of implacable, cheerful prettiness, underscoring that Christine's obsession with her sister was borne entirely of her own psychosis. Home Vision Entertainment's DVD release offers a very nice, very clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the film with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in French with optional English subtitles. Extras include an interview with Sylvie Testud in which she discusses her approach to the character of Christine and her opinions on the nature of the sisters' relationship (10 min.); an interview with director Denis where he talks about his return to filmmaking after spending several years as a customs officer, as well as the process of researching the story and the choices made about filming the violence (8 min.); and the French and U.S. theatrical trailers. For additional camp value, the trailer for the 1974 film The Maids is included, based on Genet's play. Presented in typically over-the-top '70s style, it features Glenda Jackson and Susanna York chewing up the scenery while a voiceover intones "The maids — these are the games they play. Seductive … scheming … savage! They live to serve — they serve to destroy!" Imagine Ken Russell directing Heavenly Creatures and you've got the idea. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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