Top positive review
12 of 13 people found this helpful
on June 28, 2005
This film tells the tawdry story of the notorious Papin sisters, and it is quite a story. In early 1933, a crime of dreadful and shocking brutality stunned the nation of France, and its citizens watched in horror as the facts unfolded. The Papin sisters, Christine and Lea, stood accused of savagely murdering their employer, Madame Lancelin, and her daughter, Genevieve, in the household where they worked as maids.
In late 1933, the trial resulted in the elder sister, Christine, being convicted of both murders and sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to that of life in prison. She would die four years later in an asylum for the criminally insane. Her younger sister, Lea, was also convicted, but only of the murder of Madame Lancelin, and was sentenced to serve ten years of hard labor. She served eight years of her ten year sentence and was then released, living to a ripe old age.
In the film, the viewer sees that the sisters came from a totally dysfunctional household. Their mother, the selfish and unloving Clemence (Isabel Renauld), kicked her alcoholic husband out the household, when she discovered that he had been molesting their oldest daughter, Emilie. She then placed their three daughters in a Catholic orphanage run by nuns. Clemence, relieved of the day-to-day responsibility of her daughters, would see them on occasion.
Emilie eventually decided to become a nun. When Christine later expressed an interest in following in Emilie's footsteps, her mother quashed that notion. Instead, as Christine (Sylvie Testud) grew older, Clemence looked to her as a source of income, hiring her out to work as a maid. The viewer sees the deadening effect of her servitude, as her employers treat Christine as a virtual nonentity. Initially, Christine tested the patience of some of her earlier employers to whom she was, at times, slyly insolent. Later, she resorted to passive-aggressive behavior.
As time passes, however, Christine becomes more superficially accepting of her lot in life. Yet, the viewer can see an embittered Christine internalize her resentment, frustration, and dissatisfaction with her situation. Eventually, Christine's relationship with her mother totally deteriorates, and it is clear that there is little love lost between the two. Consequently, Christine grows up to be a tightly wound young woman, polite, reticent, and quiet, but seething with a strong current of emotion beneath the surface.
After a number of jobs as a maid, Christine finally finds a post with the well-to-do Lincelan family in the town of Le Mans. When Lea (Julie-Marie Parmentier) grows older, Clemence seeks to place her as a maid, as well. Having vowed that she would always look after her younger sister, Lea, Christine hatches a scheme. Not wanting to be separated from her sister, Christine manipulates her employer and ensures that Lea is placed with her in the Lincelan home.
At first, all seems well, although they find themselves looking for ways of circumventing the pettiness of their employer's frugality towards them. Then, Christine and Lea's relationship begins to change. Eventually, the somewhat dim Lea would come under the total domination of her sister. They would spend all their time together, and their close, sisterly relationship would develop a sexual component, leading to a shocking, incestuous relationship, with Lea always following Christine's lead.
One day, Madame Lincelan and her daughter return home unexpectedly, while Christine and Lea are engaged in activities other than their chores. When Christine goes to head them off at the pass, all hell breaks loose, as she takes some pretty extreme action towards them. Lea joins her in forever silencing the petty despots who had ruled their lives with an iron fist. These whirling dervishes of destruction would show no mercy.
This is a very well acted film. Sylvie Testud turns in a bravura performance as the edgy, emotionally repressed, and mentally unbalanced Christine. Julie-Marie Parmentier lends a dewy innocence to the role of Lea. The rest of the cast likewise gives excellent performances. The cinematography is suitably neutral in tone, lending a stark, austere quality to the film. This is a film that will keep the viewer riveted, but in the end it can hardly be said to be enjoyable in the accepted sense, as the emotions that it conjures are so disquieting. Still, this is a deftly directed, well acted film that is certainly worth seeing, especially if one is a true crime aficionado.