My sister, my accomplice

A real-life French parable of the deadly dispossessed.

For someone who has so little for themselves, so little room to think, so little personal freedom, it may only take something little to set the savage actions of the id loose. Take Christine Papin for instance: rushed off to a convent at a young age with her sister, Emilia, for something their father did — to protect them or punish them, depending on how you look at it. At least they had each other, until Christine lost Emilia to God. At home, her father’s gone; her mother (who she was never allowed to call “mum”) is bitter and cold, insisting that Christine work to help support her. The only source of unconditional love and respect in Christine’s life rests in her little sister, Lea, and she begs her not to change.

“Lea, promise you’ll never be like them.” Lea promises.

Murderous Maids harbors echoes of elements in Peter Jackson’s phenomenal Heavenly Creatures. It’s also based on a true story: young women, finding solace in each other’s company, so tortured by the thought of separation that they go to drastic means to protect what they have, but ultimately undoing the same. You know by the title what happens. The Papins’ case is purported to be “the most extreme crime committed by women against women on record,” not only in 1930s France, but today as well.

As Christine and Lea Papin, Sylvie Testud and Julie-Marie Parmentier’s talents and on-screen personalities complement and thrive off each other. They look as if they were plucked out of an old photograph, but most especially Testud. With her conundrum eyes, both sensitive and chilling, and a face that could be sensual if Christine didn’t tighten it so much, Testud is outstanding and unsettling, garnering a ferocity just below her skin, until she can contain the fury no more.

Director Jean-Pierre Denis, known as a regional filmmaker, paints a stifling picture, saturated with meticulous attention to rich, period details, while fostering a high emotional contrast. Christine’s day-to-day house-servant life is a tight-lipped and -gripped nonexistent existence, where you speak to your employers in the third person and never speak your mind — an unnatural calm that’s occasionally shaken by Christine’s blasts of rage, and later, violent jealousy.

The film is stark, straightforward and deadly, because Denis’ documentary-fiction aesthetic only allows us to see beyond what’s immediately visible a couple of times. A girl picks a fight with Christine at the convent. After the girls are doused in water and pried apart, a concerned nun asks Christine who started the fight. But Christine looks as if she’s in a trance and says nothing; she’s escaped into a tender memory, where a gentle, gray-haired woman feeds her red berries. Very soon after, we’re shot to the adult Christine, a cheerless, efficient maid, but we’ve already seen the vulnerable, sensitive soul that lives somewhere underneath her impassive appearance, and know it’s there. Now it only seems to surface when Lea is present.

Later, her employers ring her in, just to see who’s guessed Christine’s hair color correctly, adding to the insult by calling her “Zephirine” instead of her name. After she leaves them, she says to herself, “So this is what a maid is? A doormat for others, without a name.”

At the time, the reaction to the murders and possible motives tore social and psychological discourse wide open in France (and, I’m sure, improved the treatment of servants in general). French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan utilized the Papins’ behavior to shape his theories on paranoid hysteria, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir dedicated books to the incident, focusing on the Papins as a revolutionary symbol for France’s oppressive class distinctions, and their devastatingly unfair results. Wrote Beauvoir:

“One must accuse their childhood orphanage, their serfdom, the whole hideous system set up by decent people for the production of madmen, assassins and monsters. The horror of this all-consuming machine could only be rightfully denounced by an exemplary act of horror.”

However, the director’s perspective doesn’t seem to lean one way or the other. To Denis’ Christine, it was something threatening to burst in on the one comfort in her life, Lea.

Like everything else in English translation, the title sounds better in French: Les Blessures Assassines, the literal meaning of which (“The Murderous Injuries”) is poetic, open to multiple interpretations and not as flippant as Murderous Maids. In essence, the English title is as disrespectful of the Papins as their overbearing suffocating employers, reducing their life-shattering actions to something you might call a pulp book, a board game or, worse yet, a dehumanizing newspaper headline: “Doormats Gone Mad.” Even though the title gives away the end, nothing can prepare you for what’s to come, which is a compliment to the director’s talents.

No one can live in a life that’s void of hope and self-esteem for very long without some repercussions. So, what is an appropriate degree of counterviolation for a maid whose needs have been violated her whole life?

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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