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The true-life story of the murderous Papin sisters gets a restrained retelling in this thoughtful and disturbing period drama from director Jean-Pierre Denis
In the annals of true crime, the infamous Papin sisters' double murder in 1930s Lyon has always remained an enigma. Why was it that these two seemingly shy young maids viciously attacked and killed their employer and her daughter? To his credit, director Jean-Pierre Denis' Murderous Maids (Les Blessures Assassines) doesn't try to find a definitive answer to that question, choosing instead to show how ordinary circumstances could fuel such extra-ordinary behaviour. The result is a subtle, but deeply disturbing drama, that's all the more powerful for not tying up every loose end.
Since the outcome of the story is never in any doubt (even if you hadn't heard of the Papin case, the title's a giveaway), Denis takes his time with the narrative, trapping us, like the characters, within the strict confines of the world of service that these two girls are forced into by their greedy mother. As Christine, Sylvie Testud (The ChÃ¢teau, La Captive) gives a stunning performance that captures the inward rage of a girl pushed to the brink of her sanity by incest, adolescent sexual desire and the overwhelming awareness of her second-class status. Imbuing her character with an emotional range that prevents her from becoming one-dimensionally immoral, Testud teases out Christine's gradual disintegration over the course of the film.
The result is a drama that evokes the despair of these two immature girls as the hopeless tedium of their lives bears down upon them. But what's so tragic is that not even Christine's final moment of violence can save them. Acting without foresight, their murderous explosion only serves to bring the walls in closer around them. Perhaps that's why the aftermath - in which their sanity is finally wrenched from them - is so utterly distressing.
Constructing this story with sensitive slowness, Denis keeps the sensational aspects surrounding these incestuous lesbian sisters in check, letting a fantastic performance from Testud carry the movie.
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