In a 1933 trial, French courts ruled that two housemaids, having killed their employer and her daughter, were guilty of premeditated murder. Julie-Marie Parmentier and Sylvie Testud are eerily convincing as the intense pair of co-dependents in the rigorous but creepy drama "Murderous Maids."

In a September 1933 trial that lasted barely one day, French courts ruled that two housemaids, the Papin sisters, having killed their employer and her daughter in cold blood, were guilty of premeditated murder. Julie-Marie Parmentier and Sylvie Testud are eerily convincing as the intense pair of co-dependents in the rigorous but creepy drama “Murderous Maids.” Pic, which has been holding its own in Gallic cinemas since its late-November release, may well garner awards for its talented leads and makes an ideal double bill with the documentary “In Search of the Papin Sisters,” from the same producers.

As revisited by Jean-Pierre Denis, in his return to helming after 12 years as a customs agent, the possible motives for this true but never explained crime include jealousy, lesbian incest and the powderkeg effect of the way household help was routinely treated: as perpetual workhorses without identities, personalities or emotional needs of their own.

Interested primarily in the formative years leading up to the abrupt crime, pic garnered enthusiastic press in Gaul, where the Papin sisters have inspired nearly as much ink over the years as the JonBenet Ramsey murder has in the U.S.

After seven years’ service in the Lancelin household, the otherwise pious and conscientious maids — Lea, 22, and Christine, 28 — snapped just long enough to bludgeon Mme. Lancelin and her grown daughter, Genevieve, gouge out their eyes with their bare hands and notch their lifeless legs with a kitchen blade as one would a loaf of French bread.

Christine initiated the violence and Lea pitched in later because she shared in everything her sister did. Then they repaired to their room and waited politely for the authorities to arrive.

No motive ever emerged, but editorialists and intellectuals assumed the class struggle was at least partly to blame. Jean Genet’s 1947 play “The Maids” was inspired by the Papins. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir wrote about them after the fact, with De Beauvoir proclaiming that any woman who subjected hired help to the white-glove test deserved to be reduced to hamburger.

On celluloid, Nico Papatakis’ first film, “The Depths” (1963), transposed the Papin affair; Nancy Meckler’s “Sister My Sister” (1994) starred Julie Walters as Mme. Lancelin; and Claude Chabrol’s class-revenge tour de force “La ceremonie” (1995), adapted from Ruth Rendell’s “A Judgment in Stone,” drew inspiration from the Papins.

The chronological facts of the Papins’ lives are known. Current script, based on a book, speculates about what little private lives the girls could steal away from a demanding life of servitude.

First half-hour or so, in which their childhood in Le Mans is evoked, is slightly fragmented and mildly confusing. After their father leaves their mother (Isabelle Renauld), the two eldest of the three Papin girls are sent to a residential convent-cum-orphanage.

Following WWII, Emilia, the oldest, takes nun’s vows, leaving middle sister Christine with only a flighty, exploitative and mostly absentee mom and the much younger Lea, whom she resolved to protect.

After Christine serves in a variety of households, she and Lea are placed together at the Lancelins, where they perfect a strange symbiosis born of too few distractions, close living quarters and the basic human need for affection and approval. When Mme. Lancelin and her daughter arrive home unexpectedly one late afternoon in February, Christine bashes their heads in with a pewter pitcher.

As Christine, Testud projects the severe face of another era — a humorless, intense mien. There are hints of a persecution complex and overt signs of over-sensitivity. Parmentier has the less showy but equally tricky task of limning the seemingly less complicated Lea, who accepts her sister’s counsel and intimate caresses.

Hailed by local crix for its perfs, sobriety and attention to detail, “Murderous Maids” is as far as you can get from Peter Jackson’s giddy and unconventional “Heavenly Creatures,” which got inside the psychology of two real-life adolescent girls who killed one’s mother in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954. Current pic does its sober best to relate the increments of humiliation by which a crime of exceedingly bloody passion became possible, but not predictable.

Widescreen lensing effectively conveys the details of mostly dreary lives with the occasional spark of freedom or luxury. Pic has no music. Terse text at the end explains what became of the two women.

Murderous Maids

France

Production

An ARP Selection release of an ARP production, in association with Canal Plus. (International sales: ARP, Paris.) Produced by Michele Petin, Laurent Petin. Directed by Jean-Pierre Denis. Screenplay, Denis, Michele Halberstadt, based on the book "L'affaire Papin" by Paulette Houdyer.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Jean-Marc Fabre; editor, Marie-Helene Dozo; art director, Bernard Vezat; costume designer, Sylvie de Segonzac; sound (Dolby), Jean-Pierre Duret, Thomas Gauder; casting, Jeanne Biras. Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite, Paris, Dec. 5, 2000. (In Berlin Film Festival - Panorama.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Christine Papin - Sylvie Testud Lea Papin - Julie-Marie Parmentier Clemence - Isabelle Renauld Mme. Lancelin - Dominique Labourier M. Lancelin - Jean-Gabriel Nordmann Genevieve Lancelin - Marie Donnio Gassed Ex-soldier - Francois Levantal
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