Jean-Pierre Denis' Murderous Maids deals once more with the case of Christine (Sylvie Testud) and La Papin (Julie-Marie Parmentier), two sisters and maids who, in 1933, brutally murdered their employers, Mme. Lancelin (Dominique Labourier) and her daughter Genevive (Marie Donnio). Their story and trial have fascinated such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Attwood, psychiatrist Jacques Lacan and, most famously, Jean Genet, who wrote his play The Maids about them. Director/co-writer Jean-Pierre Denis makes their tale less one of a righteous class rebellion against implacable, aristocratic exploitation and more of a personal study of Christine's pathology. A confused, abusive childhood, coupled with the stiflingly close quarters she was forced to live in and incestuous desire for La, are given as more complex, unsettling reasons for the crime, rather than any easy, oppressive sociological premise.
Denis presents a much darker side to the "Upstairs/Downstairs" shenanigans of Robert Altman's dazzling Gosford Park. It's not difficult to loathe Christine's employers, with their near-laughable cheapness, their shameless avidity and propensity for wearing white gloves (all the better to detect dust). The power games are unendingly fascinating and you easily empathize with the exitless, servile hell these maids live through. However, such is the blatant horror of the murders themselves--with Christine carrying on like a maenad on crystal meth--that all prior sympathy is shaken to the core. (It's the most devastating onscreen murder since Jude Law's in The Talented Mr. Ripley.) Denis' direction has a smooth elegance, matched by the gorgeous Deco house in which the murders occur. He frames the performances well, but the opening expository scenes are confusing, and once Christine kills, there is little left for her to do but go mad in a highly foreseeable fashion. It's all rather impressive, but there is no escaping a certain TV movie-of-the-week flavor in the film's almost too-slavish presentation of the whys and wherefores inherent in the Papins' early domestic life.
Testud's performance won the French Csar Award for Best Newcomer and it's easy to see why. With not a lot of help from the screenplay (proficient, but singularly cursory), she acts with the feral intensity of the young Bette Davis. Her Christine is a seething torrent of repressed frustration and desire, and Testud brings an amazing delicacy at moments, while vividly sketching her growing mania in a jabbing, original style. Parmentier has the character resembling Chrysothemis to Christine's Electra, in Greek theatre terms, and is a seemingly blank, budding flower until the force of her own considerable will breaks through the passive exterior. Isabelle Renaud presents a curiously ageless Maman to the girls, and brings some whiff of the theatrical warhorse in her dire village-square imprecations to the hostile La. Labourier is every inch the hateful, condescending haute-bourgeoise.