There is a saying that damaged people are very dangerous. One extreme case of damage turning people dangerous is the famous case of France's Christine and Lea Papin, who shocked the nation in 1933 by not merely committing murder, but by doing so with such violence that no one could really understand what had happened, "Sister My Sister" is a very accurate, fascinating psychological study of four women in le France profound, a small provincial town where class rules, family behavior, Catholic restrictions combined to make life so circumscribed that any sort of freedom was impossible, even in one's own home. This fact is addressed with light charm in the film "Chocolat" where chocolate-eating equals sinning (unthinkable to us!) and being "different" is nearly criminal, but to those who lived in these places in the not so distant past, one's life was never unscrutinized by someone, somewhere, and for domestics, the mistress or master of the house could become a genuine tyrant, terrorizing the staff into desperation. For those who could not escape to a loving family, or Paris, or any place but where they were stuck, life had to be lived as best as possible. In fact, the costume designer of "Chocolat" pointed out that in the towns they scouted, people were still dressed in clothes from the 1st half of the century; change is slow and progress practically non-existent.
The two sisters, powerfully portrayed by Joely Richardson as the elder Christine, and Jodhi May as the younger, Lea, have only one another for the most part. Their mother,seen abandoning Christine at the start of the film, is an enemy to Christine who, once Lea joins her, encourages Lea to break her ties to her mother immediately. The mother rejected all her daughters, seemingly hating and especially rejecting Christine (see "The Papin Sisters" by Rachel Edwards & Keith Reader), placing her in an orphanage at an early age, and later valuing her only for the money she could earn as a maid. Her mother`s contempt, contrasted with her treatment of Lea (who was also placed in an orphanage, but visited and lovingly corresponded with), and who was petted and sometime held, stimulated intense jealousy in Christine, who both loved and loathed her Maman. At the time the story starts, Lea has been rescued from the orphanage, as Christine has contrived to talk the mistress of the house, Madame Lancelin (Danzard in this film), to hire her as a second domestic. Julie Walters as Madame alternates between a sort of genuine joie de vivre that sometimes becomes hysteria, and a controlled cruelty that astonishes and hurts her two maids and even her deeply imperfect daughter (she's chubby and not always perfectly behaved, as young girls are wont to be).
The relationship between the sisters is already fraught with tension, as Christine is always on the edge of an explosion having lived a loveless, empty life of servitude and repeated rejections, and now holds herself in so tightly it's as though she's bound herself up in razor-wire. Richardson communicates this through the intense and forced stillness of her body. One imagines that by the end of a day's shoot, the actress needed an hour-long shower and long massage just to be able to bend over and touch her toes. Christine is also still holding a raging jealousy in check, furious with Lea for continuing to correspond with their mother and furious with their mother for taking their very hard-earned money. She's even jealous when Lea makes tentative contact with Madame's daughter, Isabelle. Unfortunately, it is quickly apparent that Lea's arrival provides no relaxation, but rather an increased tension as Christine tries to hold her love, both appropriate and inappropriately possessive, in check, until it is released through physical passion. Their incestuous relationship seems born of desperation on Christine's part--the need to possess totally her sister, and on Lea's, the natural need for physical contact and natural emerging sexuality. Christine has filled the years of waiting for Lea by making gorgeous lace clothing for her, a trousseau almost, and when she tries on the first of the lovely garments, her beauty overwhelms Christine, who seems nearly out of her mind with tormented worship of her young sister, while Lea seems merely curious and desirous of pleasure. But there is very little overt sexuality, only intense, tightly held passion, so if you're looking for a voyeuristic lesbian peep-show, you'll be disappointed. But if you're interested in a genuine attempt to unravel this psychological puzzle, "Sister My Sister" is the real deal.
The victims, the employer and her late adolescent daughter, Isabelle are the other two women in this man-less world (the girls' father abandoned the family when they were tiny), and M. Lancelin has been left out of this film, though it's never stated that he's dead or divorced--merely not there for any of the scenes we see. In reality, it was he who came home to find his wife and daughter horribly murdered and mutilated, and knowing that makes his absence seem more psychological than physical. The sisters never speak to their employers, who are themselves locked in an intense, controlling relationship, where the daughter has no freedom at the moment, nor any real prospects for marriage--Isabelle seems to have no friends, they have no company, they are alone together all the time--so the claustrophobic sense of the house grows as the four of them seemed locked in, like inmates in an asylum, which is what Director Nancy Meckler makes the home feel like. Between Madame's tendency to hysteria, her daughter's sullenness, Christine's barely reined-in hatred of everyone but Lea, and Lea's constant terror (which started in the lonely orphanage and haunts her with nightmares and a deep fear of punishment by Madame and of Christine`s sudden jealous rages), the disaster at the end of the end of the road seems inevitable.
Class lines keep the girls and their employers inextricably separate. Madame speaks about them in their presence as though they're invisible, yet she never takes her eyes off the two of them. In fact, the theme of omniscience, of the never-ceasing and always critical gaze of Madame and her daughter, the sense that their mother is "watching" them from afar, the constant vigilance for sin in the nun-operated orphanage that remains with them well into their adulthood, their constant fear of always of being judged and always judged ill, creates a tension in the house that builds to breaking point. Even Christine never stops watching and judging herself, disallowing imperfection in even the smallest thing, and alternately scrutinizing Lea, looking for the betrayal she's certain will come and exploding in small furies at her, then watching her for mistakes so that she can cover for Lea to protect her from Madame`s increasingly distressing criticisms. Lea's choice to wear a sweater made for her by Christine causes Madame to become outraged, especially at the good quality of the wool--inappropriate for a mere maid--yet she speaks that outrage to her daughter rather than to the present Lea, saying, "How dare she wear such a thing? Who does she think she is?" again reinforcing the boundaries of class. Their uniforms must be perfect, every bit of work they do must be perfect--a speck of dust is cause for serious and seemingly out of proportion anger on the part of Madame; finally a minor (to us) but calamitous (to them) housekeeping disaster breaks the high-wire they're all walking, and the tension breaks into explosive rage. Madame's nearly final words about the maids, as they come in from a Sunday outing and huddle together without speaking to either of the other two women as they pass them, is "They don't even look like maids any more." This seems to genuinely offend (and puzzle) Madame. Somehow, the maids have passed out of her knowledge, and by doing so have made her a real enemy, as their mother has been.
Interestingly, it was Madame who instigated the attack, verbally assaulting the girls after having come home to find the house dark after a fuse has burnt out. There is a broken glass in the sink, which enrages her further, and Isabelle's blouse is burnt (the iron had blown the fuse--a constant problem that Madame had refused to spend money on the proper repair of) and realizes the girls are locked in their room. When she demands they come down and out, she really lets Christine have it for these "crimes", then, voicing her suspicion, accuses her of "smelling of it," and indeed the two had retreated to bed, awaiting Madame's return in terror. All four have lost any sense of proportion about everything--it's inconceivable to us to imagine a murder being set off by burning a blouse--but it's often the littlest thing that brings situations to a head when everyone has taken extreme positions in such a perverse dynamic.
The murders were so bloody that to learn of them brings to mind the Manson or Wonderland murders, with one significant difference--eyes. The girls come down, with their hair down, in the nightgowns, clearly at breaking point, and when Madame insults Lea, Christine flies apart and the two girls meet the attack with all their bottled up rage by gouging out, with their fingers, the eyes that have followed them through their every move for months now. This detail is nearly unique in the history of murders, and seems to be the reason so much attention has been given to the puzzle of why they did this. They continue to cut and slice at the bodies until they are unrecognizable, but even that had a point--one of the women`s legs was sliced like a baguette, perfectly, another as carefully prepared meat, as though to prove that the maids knew how to bake bread and cook properly, despite Madame`s increasing criticisms of their formerly highly praised dinners. These bizarre details speak to a specific psychology that keeps people trying to break into these women's minds to get the exact answers they seek.
Though blood runs in rivers down the staircase, most of the attack is off-screen and only by reading the book does one learn all the shocking details beyond the judge`s off-screen description of the horror after the fact, while the camera floats up the stairs to where the girls wait, huddled in their dark bedroom, clutching one another in terror. Having descended so far into madness, they seem unable to conceive an escape.
Fragments of the trial are heard only, off-screen, over the image of the terrified girls. Christine was sentenced to the guillotine, but her sentence was commuted. She begged for Lea once, then never spoke her name again, dying in an asylum a mere four years later, completely broken down in body and mind. Lea served a 20-yr sentence, then went back into service until her death in the early 1982. But still, the case fascinates because of the bizarre details of violence done by two young women.
This same story is told much more straightforwardly in "Murderous Maids" but for genuine insight into the psychological situation, `Sister My Sister" is the better film. Meckler's direction is as tight and detail-oriented as Madame would have wanted, and by keeping such control, she creates a beautiful film of real depth that helps us to unlock the mystery of this case. It's gorgeous cinematography (looking like a series of Rembrandt paintings), intense performances, claustrophobic set of the stuffy drawing room, the tiny whitewashed space the girls are crammed into in the attic, small details like the never-ending dripping of the faucet in the kitchen or the women playing the piano together but not freely, but to the tick-tock of a metronome to reinforce the need for "perfection," the use of mirrors and double images (the famous photograph of the two is re-created here, with Christine proudly refusing a "lower-class" discount from the never seen male photographer; this photograph was inspired when Madame and her daughter had one done), the consistent keeping of men off-screen, making this a very specific women's story (in fact, all four women were menstruating at the time of the murders--another mirror and rather odd detail that makes this even more of a women's story, whether one considers it significant or not). It speaks too of the tragedy that can come from the choice-less, forced into home-bound lives of women in a small-minded community, the limitations of strict class lines, and of course, the damage done to abandoned children. It is an irony of the story that the two pairs of women, while of different classes, both suffer from the same limitations put upon women when they are expected to be in service to the society's expectations, rather than in service to their own internal needs . In my own reading and viewing depictions of this most fascinating case, I've found this to be the closest one can get, perhaps, to understanding these tragically repressed young women and the equally repressed women who were their victims.