Based on a headline-grabbing true crime that has long fascinated the French and inspired work by such esteemed writers as Jean-Paul Sartre Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet Murderous Maids is the story of sisters Christine Papin (Sylvie Testud) and Lea Papin (Julie-Marie Parmentier) who in 1933 murdered Madame Lancelin (Dominique Labourier) and her daughter Genevieve (Marie Donnio) in their elegant home in Le Mans France. Also from Le Mans Christine and Lea--like their elder sister Emilia who fled hardship for a religious life--had difficult childhoods. Their mother Clemence (Isabelle Renauld) who lived a life of poverty and menial work was largely indifferent to her daughters although she favored Lea. Her taste in men was unfortunate: Her husband had raped Emilia and her current lover a crass veteran makes advances toward Christine. After Christine leaves a series of demeaning jobs in wealthy homes she eventually lands a position with wealthy lawyer Lancelin and his family and is able to get a job there for Lea to whom she has grown unusually attached. When the relationship between the sisters becomes incestuous Christine grows jealous of Lea's closeness to Madame Lancelin. Worse she suspects that her employer is aware of their relationship. Christine finally loses control one evening when Madame Lancelin and her daughter unexpectedly return home early. Christine violently attacks the two women and persuades Lea to collude in the vicious assault. Nabbed by the authorities Christine eventually ends up in an asylum where she dies and Lea serves time quietly in prison.
Testud won the Cesar (France's highest film award) last year for most promising actress in Les Blessures Assassines and no wonder. She is brilliant and wholly believable as the tortured complex sister driven to incest and murder. Testud suggests pain so real that you almost fathom the horrific ends she goes to. As the quieter and more vulnerable sister Parmentier is also superb. She is able to convey a muted ambivalence and confusion simmering under her vulnerable surface. All other performances including those of Renauld as their amoral mother and Labourier as the hapless bourgeois madame are also right on the mark.
Jean-Pierre Denis who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation from the book The Papin Affair does an extraordinary job of evoking his deeply troubled characters their clueless employers and the starkly contrasted milieus and rigid moral and social climates that infused their lives. Denis wisely lets the authentic costumes and settings (the film was actually shot in Le Mans) tell much of the story. His decision to dispense with a music track in favor of natural sounds and the pitch-perfect performances he coaxes from his actors add to the chilling authenticity. The crisp imagery that Denis' cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre delivers amounts to a provocative tableaux--a doomed mix of magnificent comfort and unsightly squalor. The film which was nominated for 4 Cesar Awards is also a handsome production rich in fine performances--especially those of Testud and Parmentier. One scene that depicts the incest between the two sisters may disturb many but it is in keeping with Denis' reverence for the cold hard ugly facts and the mysterious psychological and social underpinnings that were integral to this legendary case.