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Domestic Disturbance

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The great Ralph Ellison addressed the issue in its American racial context in his 1952 masterpiece Invisible Man, namely the way society can reduce certain of its citizens to a status so lowly that they are in critical regards unseen. Most of us in the middle class have been party to such casual degradation. I have attended lunch meetings where conversations continued as if those serving our plates and pouring our coffee were robots rather than human beings, have lifted drinks and appetizers off cocktail party trays as if the food arrived and departed by magic carpet rather than human wait staff. Director Jean-Pierre Denis' Murderous Maids tells the sad story of two young women reduced to such invisibility and the frightful rage their powerlessness nurtured.

The 1933 incident in Le Mans where two domestic servants beat their employer and her daughter to death with a pewter pitcher has been the subject of several literary, theatrical and cinematic treatments including books by Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Margaret Atwood, a play by Jean Genet and the 1994 British film Sister My Sister. Adapted for the screen here by Denis and Michele Halberstadt from Paulette Houdyer's book L'Affaire Papin, Murderous Maids is the story of sisters Christine (Sylvie Testud) and Lea (Julie-Marie Parmentier) Papin, young women put out to domestic service by their own mother, Clemence (Isabelle Renauld), who cannot seem to imagine a life for them any different from her own. I am uncertain how much of what we witness in this film stands as established fact, but it's clear that Denis endeavors to present a social and psychological context in which two frail women could explode into an act of such horrific violence.

When their father deserted the family, Christine and an older sister were sent to live with their aunt. But when the aunt marries, the older Papin girls are placed in a convent school where the oldest daughter shortly decides to become a nun. Christine also desires to join the order, but her mother blocks her acceptance and soon places her into domestic service. Separated permanently from her older sister, to whom she's always been close, Christine now pledges to provide her younger sister Lea with more affection and sense of family security than Christine herself has ever known.

Through her teens Christine cooks, cleans, irons and organizes for a series of employers, none of whom treat her with proper respect. For the most part she performs well, but resentment toward her specific and generally limited circumstances festers not far beneath her resolutely polite manner. Her refusal to accept having her meager rights abrogated leads to a series of dismissals. Finally, though, Christine lands employment with a family that seems to respect her intelligence, industry and privacy. Then, when Clemence puts Lea into service and Christine convinces the Lincelans to hire her, too, life for the sisters seems as good as it's likely to get.

Madame Lincelan (Dominque Labourier) is more respectful than any of Christine's previous employers, but she is still the kind of mistress who dons a white glove to check the quality of the sisters' cleaning. Worse, like all the others, Madame Lincelan is careless about concealing from Christine and Lea her convictions of the superiority of her own class. Manifest in that way and others, she never sees the girls as fully human. As a result, the sisters pull ever more into themselves, eventually becoming lovers as well as co-workers, best friends and sisters. In the final analysis, violence erupts from a desperate effort to protect the secrecy of their sexual connection.

Murderous Maids offers wise insight about the thousand slights suffered by the powerless at the hands of the myopic rich. Employers talk about their servants as if they are deaf, subject them to inspections as if they are draft animals, self-righteously dock their pitiful wages for inevitable failings as if anyone, with whatever amount of care, could achieve perfection. And with time we come to understand that the greatest skill a person could bring to domestic service is the ability to tolerate humiliation.

The film is a little slow going, but it is short, and its frankly revealing title enhances its narrative tension. We know what's coming, but not when. We largely know why but not the immediate provocation or its aftermath. The picture is very well served by its performances. In a cinematic universe without Hollywood at its center, we could well imagine Oscar nominations for Testud in the lead and Parmentier in support. In their separate ways, both are heartbreaking.

Denis' determined humanity is so extensive he accomplishes something quite remarkable: he makes an incestuous relationship understandable. Rather than repel us, we find ourselves actually heartened that, as in other ways that do not transgress against taboo, these two lonely, otherwise emotionally destitute women can comfort each other in sexual union. True compassion, he submits, allows no other response.

Sisters Christine (Sylvie Testud) and Lea Papin (Julie-Marie Parmentier) succumb to the indignities of class polarization in the fact-based Murderous Maids, screening Thursday at the Prytania.
  • Sisters Christine (Sylvie Testud) and Lea Papin (Julie-Marie Parmentier) succumb to the indignities of class polarization in the fact-based Murderous Maids, screening Thursday at the Prytania.

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