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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Murderous Maids (2000)

Léa: Is this wrong?
Christine: No, sweetheart. Being whores would be worse.

- Julie-Marie Parmintier, Sylvie Testud

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: January 08, 2004

Stars: Sylvie Testud, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Isabelle Renard
Director: Jean-Pierre Denis

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, sexual content, violence, domestic and otherwise)
Run Time: 01h:32m:17s
Release Date: September 23, 2003
UPC: 037429177129
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BA-A C+

DVD Review

Throw together sex, class, and violence, and you've got a potent brew, a suitable nominee for France's crime of the century. Murderous Maids is a retelling of the story of the notorious Papin sisters, and the deeds that made them famous in Le Mans in the early portion of the last century—it was the stuff of tabloid headlines eighty years ago, and served as the inspiration for Jean Genet when he wrote The Maids. In that respect, the appropriate analogy in the English-speaking world may be to something like the Leopold and Loeb case, the obvious inspiration for Hitchcock's Rope. Jean-Pierre Denis' film may not be the last word on les soeurs Papin, but it is a pretty tautly told and entertaining story.

Of course it all begins with Mommy, and Isabelle Renauld as Mme. Papin is an appropriate monster. Emilia, molested by her (offscreen) father, turns out to be the Papin girl most spared, as she's packed off to the convent; Christine (Sylvie Testud) is trained for a life of service, as is the youngest Papin sister, Léa (Julie-Marie Parmintier). The rumble of Marxist discontent is obvious—one of Christine's employers pays the maid so little mind that Christine is called in to see if she is a blonde or a brunette. A life of service doesn't leave much time for family, and Christine's brief visits with hers are testy and tense; she pines for more time with Léa, but simply cannot abide her mother. Léa isn't a pure little thing, either, though, as she cheerily and innocently reports to Christine that her own employers are fond of grabbing her, touching her, feeling her—it seems like a slippery slope down the hill from domestic service to prostitution, and even if sexual favors aren't exchanged, the Papin sisters are made to feel like commodities.

Mother is successful in placing Léa and Christine in the same home, and what happens chez Lincelan accounts for the notoriety of the Papins. If you're unfamiliar with the historical circumstance, the film's title is something of a giveaway, and the intimations of violence are prevalent throughout the film. Denis is very good on the particulars of domestic service, and in this sense the film treads on some of the same territory that Gosford Park did, across the Channel, but principally the movie works best as a psychological portrait of Christine, a young woman suffocated by work, family, love, sex, chores, food, everything—the movie doesn't excuse her behavior or apologize for her, but it's no wonder that violence is the necessary and inevitable result.

Denis is appropriately understated with both the sex and the violence—the story has healthy dollops of each, and the filmmaker doesn't shy from them, but he is appropriately respectful of both his characters and his audience's intelligence, which is always cause for celebration. (The titillation factor isn't completely absent, though—it wouldn't qualify as an adult French film if there weren't a certain amount of female nudity, and the editing is well paced to make you recoil at images that are more suggestive than explicit.) His actors are very fine, too, especially Testud and Parmintier, playing women of limited education and sophistication; the Papins are never romanticized or condescended to in this story, and the temptation to do either or both had to have been powerful. No doubt those of us in the States miss out on many of the cultural nuances about France and the particular bits of interest about the case—imagine watching a film about O. J. Simpson if you'd never before heard of O. J. Simpson—but still, this is a smart and provocative work that, if nothing else, should inspire you to overtip.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A lovely transfer, full of crisp, bright colors well rendered. Only occasional bits of debris and dirt, and nicks on the print, detract from the visual presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: There's excellent work on the audio transfer as well—the 5.1 track is particularly evocative during the second half of the film, as Christine's descent into lunacy has explosive implications. The 2.0 track isn't nearly as atmospheric, but it's certainly adequate.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Maids
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet with an essay on the Papin sisters by Janet Flanner
Extras Review: In an accompanying interview (09m:41s), Testud talks about her empathy for Christine as a historical figure ("She only exists through violence"), and about surrendering herself to her process, to play a woman like this without judgment. And in another featurette (08m:35s), Denis discusses splitting time between film directing and what seems still to be his day job, working as a customs inspector; he's also well attuned to the social and aesthetic pedigree of the Papin case. One of the original trailers is for the French release, the second, for the American one; and the other trailer is for a 1974 English-language filmed version of Genet's play, starring Glenda Jackson. The accompanying essay by Janet Flanner first appeared in Vanity Fair, and is a useful overview of the historical facts of the case; also in the accompanying booklet is a reproduction of a photograph of Léa and Christine, looking awfully forbidding.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Not exactly fun for the whole family, but a smart and edgy film that reminds us that intervening decades cannot abate the power of a grisly crime to shock.


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