Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Denis.
Produced by: Michèle & Laurent Pétin.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Denis & Michèle Halberstadt, based on the book, L'affaire Papin by Paulette Houdyer.
Director of Photography: Jean-Marc Fabre.
Edited by: Marie-Hélène Dozo.
Released by: Home Vision Entertainment.
Country of Origin: France. 94 min. Not Rated.
With: Sylvie Testud, Julie-Marie Parmentier & Isabelle Renauld.
DVD Special Features: Sylvie Testud Interview. Jean-Pierre Denis Interview. Trailers including The Maids (1974). Janet Flanner's 1933 Vanity Fair Article Recounting the Actual Events.

Ignore the badly translated title. Based on the notorious murders of an upper-class mother and daughter in 1933 Le Mans, France, director Jean-Pierre Denis methodically offers an explanation of what would lead two convent educated sisters, Christine and Léa Petain, to commit the brutal murders. At a clipped paced, Denis depicts the elder Christine’s strict education, her abandonment by one sister to the Church, and, following in her mother’s footsteps, her life as a maid, where she is nameless and taken for granted. After being fired for talking back to a mistress, Christine lands a position in the Lancelin household. Needing a skilled seamstress, the madame (Renauld) hires the younger Petain sister, Léa, per Christine’s recommendation. Alone in their claustrophobic room at the top of the stairs, the sisters are a world unto themselves. But noticing the rumpled sheets on only one of the two twin beds, Madame Lancelin becomes suspicious. With smooth transitions - a torrid sex scene precedes a scene set during Mass where Christine prays for God’s blessing for herself and her sister - the buildup to the gruesome killings is riveting. As Christine, Sylvie Testud, is nothing less than ferocious (she won a César Award, the French Oscar, for her performance). Even in her stillness, she’s compelling. Julie-Marie Parmentier more than holds her own as her impressionable child-like sister. And the film’s view of the class system is much more complex than the prosecution’s pat explanation offered at their trial.

Extras: The 1933 Vanity Fair article is the most interesting extra, noting that sapphic references were ignored during the trial, as well as that the real-life Madame Lancelin never spoke to her maids, but communicated only by notes. KT
November 9, 2003



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