October 24, 2002

Cornell Cinema

Print More

Did you ever love something so much it hurt? So much that it was the only thing that mattered to you? So much that it was maybe too much? It’s just that kind of jealous, possessive love that the film Les Blessures Assassines (Murderous Maids) is exploring. The movie is the story of two sisters, Catherine and Lea, who develop a bond so close that it ultimately destroys them both. Despite being based on the true murderous story of the Papin sisters, the film is light on plot, choosing instead to explore in depth the psychological attachment between the two girls.

Catherine, at the film’s start, is the family’s scapegoat. Her older sister Emilia has abandoned the family to become a nun after being raped by their absentee father, and the youngest sister Lea is everyone’s doll. So that leaves Catherine as the lonely, angry middle sister — ignored by everyone, her every wish thwarted, all the responsibilities of her mother heaped on her as well. By the time she’s old enough to support herself, she splits herself off from her mother and gets a job as a maid (though she’s increasingly discontent with having to serve her snobby upper-class masters).

Her only link to her family is the innocent Lea, in a dazzlingly carefree portrayal by Julie-Marie Parmentier. But Catherine eventually corrupts Lea, turning the girl against their mother, and Catherine’s attachment for her sister (and hatred of men because of Emilia’s rape) eventually develops into something a lot more than sisterly affection. The disturbing, tentative love scenes between the two girls contain so many submerged emotions and morality issues that they’re painful to watch. The mix of tenderness and schizophrenic jealousy in Catherine is beautifully captured by Sylvie Testud, whose transformation from shy, proper young maid to emaciated, messy-haired madwoman is nothing short of astonishing.

The one problem with the film is an overall lack of emotional depth. The plot and characters provide a rich history and plentiful room for character-driven development, but this potential isn’t always explored to its fullest. And the ultimate denouement, while refreshingly lacking in preachiness, also doesn’t quite provide a satisfying closure. What is fully developed, however, is the impact of class conflict on the film’s characters. Catherine’s slowly building resentment towards her series of employers — coupled with her increasingly fractured mental state — clearly contributed to her ultimate unthinkable act of violence, and the movie does a great job of moralizing about class distinctions without making it too obvious.

However, even the surface of the film is enough to make an impact — the plot’s slow-moving build-up is mostly felt, not seen, which demonstrates an excellent grasp of tension. The cinematography is equally compelling, adding in all cases to the movie’s disturbing subtexts. The continual juxtaposition of images of sin and sex with religious symbology (like the omnipresent cross above the bed that Catherine and Lea share) underline the girls’ past in a convent, and provide a reminder of the absent nun sister.

Murderous Maids is certainly a compelling experience overall. Dark and fraught with dangerous emotions, the actors’ performances are the centerpiece here, driving along the minimal action with conviction and raw honesty. The acting alone makes it worth seeing; everything else is just icing on the cake.

Archived article by Ed Howard