A true story of shocking violence catapults a picturesque little town into history. Julie Walters stars as the head of a perfectly respectable household that is not what it seems. The close sibling relationship between the... more » two maids takes on a new dimension as Walters discovers a sexual fever between the two sisters. The tensions reach the breaking point in a film you'll find both beautiful and horrifying.« less
The notorious Papin sister murder case well-explored
Tracy Hodson | Middle of Nowhere, OR United States | 02/03/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"There is a saying that damaged people are very dangerous. One extreme case of damage turning people dangerous is the famous case of France's Christine and Lea Papin, who shocked the nation in 1933 by not merely committing murder, but by doing so with such violence that no one could really understand what had happened, "Sister My Sister" is a very accurate, fascinating psychological study of four women in le France profound, a small provincial town where class rules, family behavior, Catholic restrictions combined to make life so circumscribed that any sort of freedom was impossible, even in one's own home. This fact is addressed with light charm in the film "Chocolat" where chocolate-eating equals sinning (unthinkable to us!) and being "different" is nearly criminal, but to those who lived in these places in the not so distant past, one's life was never unscrutinized by someone, somewhere, and for domestics, the mistress or master of the house could become a genuine tyrant, terrorizing the staff into desperation. For those who could not escape to a loving family, or Paris, or any place but where they were stuck, life had to be lived as best as possible. In fact, the costume designer of "Chocolat" pointed out that in the towns they scouted, people were still dressed in clothes from the 1st half of the century; change is slow and progress practically non-existent.
The two sisters, powerfully portrayed by Joely Richardson as the elder Christine, and Jodhi May as the younger, Lea, have only one another for the most part. Their mother,seen abandoning Christine at the start of the film, is an enemy to Christine who, once Lea joins her, encourages Lea to break her ties to her mother immediately. The mother rejected all her daughters, seemingly hating and especially rejecting Christine (see "The Papin Sisters" by Rachel Edwards & Keith Reader), placing her in an orphanage at an early age, and later valuing her only for the money she could earn as a maid. Her mother`s contempt, contrasted with her treatment of Lea (who was also placed in an orphanage, but visited and lovingly corresponded with), and who was petted and sometime held, stimulated intense jealousy in Christine, who both loved and loathed her Maman. At the time the story starts, Lea has been rescued from the orphanage, as Christine has contrived to talk the mistress of the house, Madame Lancelin (Danzard in this film), to hire her as a second domestic. Julie Walters as Madame alternates between a sort of genuine joie de vivre that sometimes becomes hysteria, and a controlled cruelty that astonishes and hurts her two maids and even her deeply imperfect daughter (she's chubby and not always perfectly behaved, as young girls are wont to be).
The relationship between the sisters is already fraught with tension, as Christine is always on the edge of an explosion having lived a loveless, empty life of servitude and repeated rejections, and now holds herself in so tightly it's as though she's bound herself up in razor-wire. Richardson communicates this through the intense and forced stillness of her body. One imagines that by the end of a day's shoot, the actress needed an hour-long shower and long massage just to be able to bend over and touch her toes. Christine is also still holding a raging jealousy in check, furious with Lea for continuing to correspond with their mother and furious with their mother for taking their very hard-earned money. She's even jealous when Lea makes tentative contact with Madame's daughter, Isabelle. Unfortunately, it is quickly apparent that Lea's arrival provides no relaxation, but rather an increased tension as Christine tries to hold her love, both appropriate and inappropriately possessive, in check, until it is released through physical passion. Their incestuous relationship seems born of desperation on Christine's part--the need to possess totally her sister, and on Lea's, the natural need for physical contact and natural emerging sexuality. Christine has filled the years of waiting for Lea by making gorgeous lace clothing for her, a trousseau almost, and when she tries on the first of the lovely garments, her beauty overwhelms Christine, who seems nearly out of her mind with tormented worship of her young sister, while Lea seems merely curious and desirous of pleasure. But there is very little overt sexuality, only intense, tightly held passion, so if you're looking for a voyeuristic lesbian peep-show, you'll be disappointed. But if you're interested in a genuine attempt to unravel this psychological puzzle, "Sister My Sister" is the real deal.
The victims, the employer and her late adolescent daughter, Isabelle are the other two women in this man-less world (the girls' father abandoned the family when they were tiny), and M. Lancelin has been left out of this film, though it's never stated that he's dead or divorced--merely not there for any of the scenes we see. In reality, it was he who came home to find his wife and daughter horribly murdered and mutilated, and knowing that makes his absence seem more psychological than physical. The sisters never speak to their employers, who are themselves locked in an intense, controlling relationship, where the daughter has no freedom at the moment, nor any real prospects for marriage--Isabelle seems to have no friends, they have no company, they are alone together all the time--so the claustrophobic sense of the house grows as the four of them seemed locked in, like inmates in an asylum, which is what Director Nancy Meckler makes the home feel like. Between Madame's tendency to hysteria, her daughter's sullenness, Christine's barely reined-in hatred of everyone but Lea, and Lea's constant terror (which started in the lonely orphanage and haunts her with nightmares and a deep fear of punishment by Madame and of Christine`s sudden jealous rages), the disaster at the end of the end of the road seems inevitable.
Class lines keep the girls and their employers inextricably separate. Madame speaks about them in their presence as though they're invisible, yet she never takes her eyes off the two of them. In fact, the theme of omniscience, of the never-ceasing and always critical gaze of Madame and her daughter, the sense that their mother is "watching" them from afar, the constant vigilance for sin in the nun-operated orphanage that remains with them well into their adulthood, their constant fear of always of being judged and always judged ill, creates a tension in the house that builds to breaking point. Even Christine never stops watching and judging herself, disallowing imperfection in even the smallest thing, and alternately scrutinizing Lea, looking for the betrayal she's certain will come and exploding in small furies at her, then watching her for mistakes so that she can cover for Lea to protect her from Madame`s increasingly distressing criticisms. Lea's choice to wear a sweater made for her by Christine causes Madame to become outraged, especially at the good quality of the wool--inappropriate for a mere maid--yet she speaks that outrage to her daughter rather than to the present Lea, saying, "How dare she wear such a thing? Who does she think she is?" again reinforcing the boundaries of class. Their uniforms must be perfect, every bit of work they do must be perfect--a speck of dust is cause for serious and seemingly out of proportion anger on the part of Madame; finally a minor (to us) but calamitous (to them) housekeeping disaster breaks the high-wire they're all walking, and the tension breaks into explosive rage. Madame's nearly final words about the maids, as they come in from a Sunday outing and huddle together without speaking to either of the other two women as they pass them, is "They don't even look like maids any more." This seems to genuinely offend (and puzzle) Madame. Somehow, the maids have passed out of her knowledge, and by doing so have made her a real enemy, as their mother has been.
Interestingly, it was Madame who instigated the attack, verbally assaulting the girls after having come home to find the house dark after a fuse has burnt out. There is a broken glass in the sink, which enrages her further, and Isabelle's blouse is burnt (the iron had blown the fuse--a constant problem that Madame had refused to spend money on the proper repair of) and realizes the girls are locked in their room. When she demands they come down and out, she really lets Christine have it for these "crimes", then, voicing her suspicion, accuses her of "smelling of it," and indeed the two had retreated to bed, awaiting Madame's return in terror. All four have lost any sense of proportion about everything--it's inconceivable to us to imagine a murder being set off by burning a blouse--but it's often the littlest thing that brings situations to a head when everyone has taken extreme positions in such a perverse dynamic.
The murders were so bloody that to learn of them brings to mind the Manson or Wonderland murders, with one significant difference--eyes. The girls come down, with their hair down, in the nightgowns, clearly at breaking point, and when Madame insults Lea, Christine flies apart and the two girls meet the attack with all their bottled up rage by gouging out, with their fingers, the eyes that have followed them through their every move for months now. This detail is nearly unique in the history of murders, and seems to be the reason so much attention has been given to the puzzle of why they did this. They continue to cut and slice at the bodies until they are unrecognizable, but even that had a point--one of the women`s legs was sliced like a baguette, perfectly, another as carefully prepared meat, as though to prove that the maids knew how to bake bread and cook properly, despite Madame`s increasing criticisms of their formerly highly praised dinners. These bizarre details speak to a specific psychology that keeps people trying to break into these women's minds to get the exact answers they seek.
Though blood runs in rivers down the staircase, most of the attack is off-screen and only by reading the book does one learn all the shocking details beyond the judge`s off-screen description of the horror after the fact, while the camera floats up the stairs to where the girls wait, huddled in their dark bedroom, clutching one another in terror. Having descended so far into madness, they seem unable to conceive an escape.
Fragments of the trial are heard only, off-screen, over the image of the terrified girls. Christine was sentenced to the guillotine, but her sentence was commuted. She begged for Lea once, then never spoke her name again, dying in an asylum a mere four years later, completely broken down in body and mind. Lea served a 20-yr sentence, then went back into service until her death in the early 1982. But still, the case fascinates because of the bizarre details of violence done by two young women.
This same story is told much more straightforwardly in "Murderous Maids" but for genuine insight into the psychological situation, `Sister My Sister" is the better film. Meckler's direction is as tight and detail-oriented as Madame would have wanted, and by keeping such control, she creates a beautiful film of real depth that helps us to unlock the mystery of this case. It's gorgeous cinematography (looking like a series of Rembrandt paintings), intense performances, claustrophobic set of the stuffy drawing room, the tiny whitewashed space the girls are crammed into in the attic, small details like the never-ending dripping of the faucet in the kitchen or the women playing the piano together but not freely, but to the tick-tock of a metronome to reinforce the need for "perfection," the use of mirrors and double images (the famous photograph of the two is re-created here, with Christine proudly refusing a "lower-class" discount from the never seen male photographer; this photograph was inspired when Madame and her daughter had one done), the consistent keeping of men off-screen, making this a very specific women's story (in fact, all four women were menstruating at the time of the murders--another mirror and rather odd detail that makes this even more of a women's story, whether one considers it significant or not). It speaks too of the tragedy that can come from the choice-less, forced into home-bound lives of women in a small-minded community, the limitations of strict class lines, and of course, the damage done to abandoned children. It is an irony of the story that the two pairs of women, while of different classes, both suffer from the same limitations put upon women when they are expected to be in service to the society's expectations, rather than in service to their own internal needs . In my own reading and viewing depictions of this most fascinating case, I've found this to be the closest one can get, perhaps, to understanding these tragically repressed young women and the equally repressed women who were their victims. "
TRUE CRIME STORY-The High Crimes Of France's Papin Sisters
Sheila Chilcote-Collins | Collinswood, Van Wert, OH USA | 04/05/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Set in the 1930's, in the small town of Le Mans in France, two sisters, Christine, the eldest & Lea, the kyounger, are hired on as cook and chambermaid to an upper middle-class widow & her only daughter, Madame and Madamoiselle Lancelin. Based on France's true crime of the century, Julie Walters as the perfectionistic & haughty, Madame Lancelin & Joely Richardson as the eldest master manipulator sister, Christine Papin turn in EXCEPTIONAL performances & the rest of the cast is well above average in their undertakings also. In February, 1933, the whole of France was horrified to learn of an unspeakably savage double murder that had taken
place in the town of Le Mans. Two respectable, middle-class women, mother and daughter, had been murdered by their
maids, two sisters who lived in the house. The maids had not simply killed the women, but had gouged their eyes out
with their fingers while they were alive and had then used a hammer and knife to reduce both women to a bloody pulp.
The full force of the attack was directed at the heads and the victims were left literally unrecognizable.Adding the bizarre to the horrifying, the sisters made no attempt to escape (...) Interesting, no? This naturally added a dimension of scandal and titillation to the case. Were the maids having a sexual relationship? If so, it was both homosexual and incestuous. Overnight, the two sisters, aged 21 and 27, became France's most infamous couples who kill.This film delves into all the speculation of the case but also has some unexplained parts about the sisters' youth & their obvious mistreatment & abuse. There are quite a many double entendres & a look into both couples chiefly meaning the two sisters and the mother and daughter Lancelin relationships. Many similarities occur between Madame Lancelin & Christine as far as their perfectionistic attitudes & control issues. The Madamoiselle Lancelin & Lea Papin also have commonalities inasmuch they are both trapped, shy and easily influenced by the former...Highly interesting & thought provoking movie. Especially since it REALLY HAPPENED!"
Intriguing British lesbian incest melodrama
Sheila Chilcote-Collins | 04/30/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Sister My Sister is like "Heavenly Creatures" with more sex and less madness. It simply lacks the nuanced believability of "Creatures'" Paulie and Juliet's descent into madness as well as "Creatures'" top-notch production values. That said, any movie that even deems comparison with the now-classic Heavenly Creatures is clearly good and worth-seeing in some respects. And indeed, Sister My Sister creates a claustrophobic, quietly sickening atmosphere which left an intriguing grab on my emotions.Jodhi May and Joely Richardson star as unnaturally close sisters, Leah and Christine. The two work as maids for a sadistic gentlewoman (Julie Davies, Mrs. Weasely in Harry Potter) and her adult daughter that she endlessly oppresses. Through various sisterly activities and excellent acting by both May and Richardson, they are completely believable as sisters. Thus their eventual sexual relationship not only intellectually but emotionally feels incestual, a nuanced feat that the filmmakers effectively pulled off.But what drives Leah and Christine to become lovers and later criminals? Their despotic employer? Too close of quarters? Pre-existing emotional instability? I believe the answer is all three, and speculation seems warranted since this movie is in fact based on a true story, the sensationalistic crime that shocked (and also entertained) 1930's France... the OJ Simpson case of the time...The primary reason to see this movie is not for a history lesson though. It is about the drama between the sisters, as their relationship evolves towards progressively extreme heights. And it is for this drama that the film should be seen. What keeps it all afloat is the fantastic acting on display. Joely Richardson, an actress who's appeared in a lot of cheese since making this movie (Event Horizon, the Parent Trap) proves her adeptness as she plays an essentially unlikeable character and acrobatically makes her sympathetic and compelling throughout the entire film.Jodhi May's performance as Leah is another example of this actress's ability and charm. She respects and looks up to her big sister, Christine, and as this admiration grows into lust, May makes this transition tragic AND tender. She is an actress who acts with her eyes. And throughout Sister My Sister hers seem to assess every situation with maximum articulateness. May's performance should have been a wake-up call to any Hollywood producer with a brain. This IS the girl.Despite May's expert character development, most of the movie suffers from lack of transition. The ending seems a little abrupt. In Heavenly Creatures everything built up to the climax. In Sister My Sister, a good twenty more minutes would have helped in properly building the tension towards the final, tragic act.Overall, I recommend this movie. Jodhi May and Joely Richardson make it entertaining and emotionally affecting."
One of the forgotten films
George W. Albertina | Mastic Beach, NY USA | 08/11/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"A film of amazing patience, and timing. All the performances are first rate. The story (a true one nonetheless) is compelling. It's a passionate, heart breaking and horrifying experience ! This film is one of the forgotten gems of the 90's. Have you heard of it before ? I didn't think so. But make sure you see it or get this DVD. The films finale and final sound (the elder sister screaming her younger sister's name) is harrowing, and unforgettable. Pretty good for a film that was forgotten by everyone else. "
You will be taken right down with them
George W. Albertina | 03/20/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"i have to admit that going into this film i was hoping for the previously mentioned "playboy meets merchant ivory romp" but was surprised in a way i never would have expected. first of all this movie is not a sex romp in any sense of the word the sex scenes here come late in the film and have almost a repulsive desperation that communicates eloquently the secluded quietly put upon lives these women are leading. as it begins the younger of the two sisters is coming into one of the most dishearteningly lonely houses i have yet encountered on film to work with her long estranged sister as a maid to an uptight woman and her restless daughter, who can ovbiously sense the smell of death in the house and on her mother and as the audience we catch that same smell on her. at first viewing the first half of the film appears to move very slowly but what you dont realize is that its sucking you into the pace of the characters lives so subtely that when the first hints of sexual tensions crop up around the sisters the audience is left gasping at the prospect of a deviation in the drudgery. i should note that by drudgery i do not mean a sense of boredom beacuse by this time you are fully invested in the characters and are pulling for them to find a way out. the sisters do finally give in to thier desires, in a scene cut betwen thier love making and the mother and daughter playing cards that builds wonderfuly until a climax is reached and the emptyness for all four parties returns. to tell you any more would be to reveal to much of one of the most affecting third acts i have ever seen. so i will leave it to you to see it. be warned though this movie presents no happy axiam for either human nature or the nature of existance it is merely a chronicle of the fall of utterly insignifigant people. that in the end is why i gave it 4 stars instead of five. beacuse while it does tell its story skillfuly and evoke emotions completely i wouldnt mind if i never felt them again."