When you watch movies as frequently as I do, as frequently as if it was your job, it takes a good deal more than good to make an impact on you. You need a story just a little out of the realm of popular fiction, you need characters who are compelling and different from those of age-old fiction, you need odds that are great but crucially they need to amount to something greater than the usual emotional catharsis. You need something more than what just anybody can do. You need something to just come roaring out of silence and not give you the chance to compare it to anything else. That doesn't happen all that often but it happened when after a long time putting it off for no real reason I watched Jean-Pierre Denis' first film after a nearly 15 year hiatus from making feature films, Murderous Maids. Filling in the blanks in the true story of the Papin Sisters, an infamous footnote in pre-war French history, Denis' mix of true crime, psychological horror, romance and historical drama is spellbinding and had me glued to the spot in ways that so few films have.
by Jean-Pierre DenisThe Papin sisters were doomed to lives of hardship. From the day their mother dropped the eldest two, Emilia and Christine, at a convent, their alienation from normality was assured. Emilia used to hold out hope that their father would come for them but that faded soon enough and before long she'd given herself to a life steeped in the faith taught to her by the sisters. Christine lost a sister and a friend when Emilia became a nun and as soon as she was old enough entered into the field of indentured servitude as a maid. With her earnings she would spend enough on herself to survive and the rest would go her little sister Léa, who soon became the only thing in the world Christine cared about. The story proper starts in the 1930s. The Papin's mother keeps a house for them while Léa is at school and Christine works. Léa worships Christine and looks forward to becoming a maid as well to take the financial burden off of her mother but Christine is aghast at the prospect of her sister going to work, especially in a job she knows to be grueling and thankless. When their mother decides that 14 is old enough to start working and sends Léa to train, Christine is furious. Her demands and protestations amount only to ensuring that they work in the same household once Léa has been properly groomed. Christine’s battle to hold Léa’s attention and favour over their mother and her own troubled relationships lead her to begin showing signs of mental fatigue. Voices and loud noises creep in and cause her great pain and distraction while she works. It isn’t long before her abnormal behavior and suspicions cause her and Léa’s dismissal from the household they work in.
Undeterred, Christine begins looking for another house in need of two maids but such circumstances don’t come along every day. When her mother’s boyfriend makes advances on Christine one day, what little safety she may have felt in her home vanishes. She settles for a job working in the Lancelin household which already has one maid. Luckily for Christine that maid is fed up with her conditions and leaves over a torn stitch a few days into Christine’s tenure, leaving a space easily filled by the younger Papin sister. Now that the two live in the same bedroom Christine tries desperately to get Léa to see the world for what it is and dream of more than mediocrity. She gets her sister to hate their mother as well and soon they only talk to each other. While away at a hunting party with the Lancelins, Christine sees something dangerous in Léa’s eyes when they’re alone. They seem to invite her near but Christine won't let herself be drawn in. That night she doesn’t sleep, but stays up furious and scared by the pleasure she feels when close to her young sister.
I have unfortunately never seen his early work, but it's tempting to conclude that Jean-Pierre Denis’ break from feature films must have taught him an awful lot about how to master them. The story of the Papin sisters has been dramatized before but I’ve never seen it done like this, never balancing innocence and guilt so evenly. His film crosses so many lines unceremoniously that you hardly notice that what you’re so riled up about would seem scandalous if you saw it happen first hand. He builds a repressive, tormented atmosphere by simply painting a realistic picture of life in France for those living in poverty and showing that it isn’t simply that the sisters are poor that does this to them. What brings out Christine’s demons is the pain of broken expectations. She starts the film by saying that she’s waited on her father her whole life. Emilia’s insistence that their father will rescue them evaporates when Emilia herself sees that there is no hope and dons her nun’s habit and abandons Christine and Léa to the mercy of their selfish mother. Christine has hope for Léa and tries to engender some of it in a young sister who cannot see beyond what confronts her everyday; her dreams of owning fine things makes Christine angry, for she’s been planning a better life for her sister for all of her own miserable existence and the thought of her sister being seduced by the finery of the catty women she slaves away for is to her a sort of betrayal. Léa's future is what keeps Christine alive and temporarily sane. When that dream life slips further and further out of Christine’s grasp and Léa doesn’t fight for it, her own life becomes even more of a mystery. Her love as a sister becomes a need for pleasure, for something certain. She cannot provide her sister with a better life so she gives her the sexual attention that she seems to beg for in her big, innocent yet ultimately unreadable eyes. And when even that fleeting but damned solace is threatened, the act that has been promised since the opening finally comes. I was so swept up in the promise of their happiness that I begged for everything to turn out well when I knew it couldn't, when I knew it was 'wrong'. I wanted their cries for help to be heard. I can’t help but feel that it’s a perfect film when the director can make you wish for things that on any other day you’d find reprehensible, unforgivable. And because Denis was able to turn the most repulsive of stories, a descent into madness with many hard discoveries along the way, into something so engrossing and so heartfelt that I was moved to the point of speechlessness, he shows complete mastery of the form. One cannot help but feel deeply for Sylvie Testud, who as Christine ignites the screen with her subtle facial ticks and immovable presence as she submits to madness at the hands of her employers; she screams for respite with the same fury that she quietly refuses to take orders that she feels belittle her. Her hold on her own life and mind becomes more tenuous as the film goes on and Testud makes us feel every slip of her fingers.
Perhaps Denis’ greatest accomplishment is that he does what he does free of frill or artifice. Murderous Maids simply progresses in a slightly fragmented straight line. Told as a series of interactions between Christine and the rest of the world (and occasionally her own inner turmoil) the film shows us her hopes rising and falling. His shots are fleeting and his editing swift but everything is clear as crystal and nothing is superfluous (there is no music, for instance to draw you from the dialogue, which is the first time that I've really noticed that the drama and horror is all right there on the faces of the lead actors. If you feel something, it is because of his direction or the performances of Sylvie Testud and Julie-Marie Parmentier). And because the story is told so straight-forwardly, only showing us what is necessary to understand the conclusion (in other words, what’s missing from the case files), it’s astonishing that Denis wrings so much beauty and passion from the story. He tells it virtually as a reenactment but the performances and the situations he creates are so heartbreaking that it’s as if he’s spent much more time lingering over embraces and filling our heads with the inner monologue of the characters than he has. And his sparse style would predict major filmmaking trends for the decade that followed; the same no-frills, distant-yet-claustrophobic feel can be found (to much different ends, of course. Denis didn’t so much inform them as predict them) in films as different as Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. He’s such a capable storyteller that he needs only his brilliant actors to draw you in with the telling of a story. It’s in those few moments, those perfectly lit glimpses into the few intimate gestures that the Papin sisters shared that Denis shows us that it didn’t matter that they were capable of murder. All that matters is that they understood that love is what is most important in the world. Removed from it, as they were, it’s no wonder they acted the way they did. Christine lived a life with virtually none in it so that her affection was contorted into something so hideous is not in the least surprising. What’s surprised me is how completely I felt for her as she was persecuted by everyone, even herself.