Murderous Maidsrecommended viewing

Are you my mother?
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2001
Director: 
Jean-Pierre Denis
Starring: 
Sylvie Testud, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Isabelle Renauld, Dominique Labourier
The Setup: 
Two sisters in 1933 France have a unnervingly close relationship, and are prepared to defend it.
Discussion: 

The big art cinema here in New York is having a film fest of French crime movies, and I went through their list and added many of them to my Netflix list, eschewing going to the theater, where I might encounter other human beings, in favor of watching the movies alone with my bunny. This was the first to arrive, and it was quite good!

We open with three young girls on their way to a convent. There’s the eldest, Christine, a middle one, Emilia, and the youngest, Lea. The two younger ones say that their father will come to get them, and won’t let them languish there. After a few days, Emilia decides that she is going to take vows and become a nun. In retrospect, she might have made a good call.

This necessitates the mother coming by to give permission, and, for some reason, means she must move to the area and take custody of the other girls. MANY of the wheres and whys of the movie were well-neigh incomprehensible, I will mention that up front. Christine, who has exchanged many yearning looks with Emilia, decides that she, too, will take her vows, to which her mother explodes “No! You’ll slave for others like I did!” It’s always sweet when a mother wants what’s best for her daughter. Mom spills that Emilia’s father raped the girl, and that Mom will send him to jail if Christine takes her vows. Christine goes out back and cries, bested, then fixes on youngest sister Lea. She makes Lea promise she’ll “never be like them,” and takes a vow to protect her.

We now move forward to when Christine seems to be about 20. Christine is now a maid, just like Mom wanted, with Mom acting as a sort of manager—including taking their wages. Mother, who insisted, you will recall, that she be a maid, now wants Christine to “show them,” i.e. her employers, and it seems that patterns familiar to these characters are being enacted once again. At one point Christine is called into the room by her employer, who had taken a bet as to whether she was blonde or not [i.e. they don’t really look at her]. Having looked at her, they send her on her way. She then finds that Mom has married some new guy, and has taken off with Lea, which further enrages Christine.

After Christine shows the first signs of her, shall we say, obstinate streak at work, and is fired, she visits Lea at her mother’s. Lea, who is then 14, shows her the high heels and stockings that her stepfather bought for her, and tells her that he sometimes has other men over who feel her thighs. So Mom is essentially whoring her youngest daughter out. Christine plays dress-up with the new items, purposely getting caught by the stepfather, letting him know she knows, and making the situation so uncomfortable that the mother agrees to place the two sisters as maids together. The stepfather then comes on, HARD, to Christine, saying he “thought it was a family tradition,” causing Christine to threaten him with a broken bottle! And of course, anyone who threatens anyone else with a broken bottle is all right with me.

I must mention again that throughout, basic information about these characters—who they are and how they know each other, what their names are—is quite difficult to puzzle out. For example, the stepfather just shows up, and we have no idea who he is for some time. Is he their new employer? This can get frustrating when it’s 30 minutes in and you’re still not sure what everyone’s name is. I still don’t know if the sisters have the same father, or what the exact relationship between Mom and their employers is, or really why Christine’s action led Mom to give in and agree to let Lea move out of the home. You just have to sit and watch.

SPOILERS > > >
So at one point the two sisters are cuddling together, when suddenly they go too far and Lea retreats to her own bed. In the middle of the night, we see Christine masturbating. During the day, a male servant comes on to Christine, but she refuses, saying she's engaged. Soon after she has another of her obstinate fits, refusing to help, move, or speak, and gets fired.

Christine starts a new job, where there is another maid, Helene, who is even more passive-aggressive then her. Helene is employed long enough to say that the new employer, Mme. Lancelin, is "wicked as sin," then is fired, making room for Lea to once again join Christine in the job. She trains Lea in being a maid, in which the uncomfortable sheen of her being a surrogate mother figure comes to the fore. Soon they are cuddling at night, then kissing and then—well, let's just say this is no Fried Green Tomatoes, after which people like my mother can insist that they're "just REALLY good friends." No, they full-on DO IT.

By now, Christine is burning letters from her mother, and having a little mini-breakdown when it becomes apparent that Lea has stolen out to see her. Christine is also supposedly setting Mme. Lancelin against Clemence, but this whole relationship was completely obscure to me. Then Lancelin gives Lea a sweater—and Christine grabs it and throws it in the stove! …You recall that, as a girl, she made Lea promise to "never be like them."

Well, one night the Lancelin's are supposed to be out for the evening, so the girls decide to close up early and have a hot night of incestuous lesbo-sex. But Mme. Lancelin comes back early, with her daughter, and, well, they really should have just stayed out. Christine bludgeons them both with a pewter jug, then we see that they spent a few hours mutilating the bodies. If you read about the real case, you discover that they gouged out the women's eyes and that their faces were completely unrecognizable.

Both girls are sent a sanitarium, where they are separated. Chrtistine screams for Lea, at one point humping her cell wall in something straight out of Genet [and this case was the basis for Genet's The Maids] and when she is finally brought, makes to sexually attack her. It ends, we have a few titles about what really happened to the women, and that's it.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was quite good, and just terribly intriguing. I could have used for it to have been a lot clearer on many points [for example, it never tells us what year this is taking place, the relationships between people are quite obscure, characters show up without being introduced], but psychologically it feels very vivid and realistic. Sylvie Testurd, who is rather amazing to look at [you might recall her as Edith's best friend from La Vie En Rose], delivers a wonderful performance as Christine, making her psychological state and even her obstinate spells very convincing, each a mixture of both her general worldview and an almost physical urge that she can't resist. Everyone is good, but this is really Testud's show, and she runs with it.

The movie glances on issues of servitude and the inequities of social class without getting bogged down by them. Apparently the case became emblematic of class struggle, which is how Genet and others took it. But the film also makes the film about these varying layers of mother figures—the real mother, Christine as surrogate mother, and their employers as de facto mothers who must be obeyed—and uses this as a frame to explore Christine's issues with authority, women's place in society, her social rank, and the way women are treated by men. If you want to read about the real sisters, look here.

Anyway, fascinating, well written and acted, dirty, dark and deep—with a good murder at the end and lost of social and psychological issues. If that sounds like fun, definitely go for it.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! It's fascinating and very well done.