Murderous Maids

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Murderous Maids

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Murderous Maids

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In February 1933, René Lancelin, a lawyer of the French town of Le Mans, returned home to find the entrance to his house barred. Forcing entry, the police made a grisly discovery: the badly mutilated bodies of Lancelin's wife and daughter. Huddling together in bed, nude, were his maids, two sisters from the Papin family who confessed to the crime. Like the Leopold and Loeb murders in the U.S., the affaire Papin has never really left the French popular imagination. It's been replayed and reinterpreted in various forms by a virtual phone book of artists and intellectuals: playwright Jean Genet, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, director Claude Chabrol, and, in Canada, Margaret Atwood. In the process, the case has become a kind of looking glass for different views of the world. Some have used it to spark discussions of class iniquity, even justifying the homicide on political grounds. Others have delved into the psychology behind the murders, speculating on the likelihood of a lesbian relationship between the sisters and posthumously diagnosing Christine, the older of the two and likely instigator of the murders, with paranoid schizophrenia. Murderous Maids—a new film about the women who were once dubbed "the monsters of Le Mans," written and directed by Jean-Pierre Denis—doesn't shy away from the social or psychological explanations of the Le Mans murders, but never comes down on one side or another. Starting from the beginning, during the Papins' convent upbringing, Denis stages Christine's life as a series of rebellions, driven by a constant need to edge past lines that, once crossed, can never be uncrossed. Sylvie Testud plays Christine, Julie-Marie Parmentier her younger sister Léa; both give performances in keeping with Denis' matter-of-fact presentation, as the latter is dragged in the wake of the former's freefall. What starts as a justified assertion of servants' rights and sisterly after-hours cuddling keeps snowballing, and Denis echoes his characters' confusion by refusing to make clear exactly when they crossed the moral Rubicon. The film studies a world of deeply entrenched class divisions and sexual taboos, and then, with a scream in the night, draws the study to a close, leaving its meaning, like that of the case that inspired it, open to interpretation.

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