Codes Unknown

Sober, nuanced, and concise, Murderous Maids takes a brisk walk through one of the creepiest crimes of the 20th century—a murder that fascinated French intellectuals from André Breton through Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet to Claude Chabrol. One winter evening in the provincial town of Le Mans, two irreproachable household domestics, Christine Papin and her younger sister, Léa, inexplicably butchered Madame Lancelin, their employer of seven years, along with her daughter, Geneviève. It was not murder, Janet Flanner reported for the readers of Vanity Fair in 1933, "but a revolution."

Revolution for the hell of it? The Papin sisters, who provided no motive for their homicidal mania—let alone its gruesome details of eye-gouging, corpse-mutilating brutality—did seem to embody a particularly extreme vision of class warfare, albeit in a realm beyond articulation. (Afterward, the women dutifully cleaned their implements and took to their bed.) Director Jean-Pierre Denis, returning to filmmaking after 12 years as a customs inspector, reconstructs what he can of the sisters' background, locating them in an oppressive context of household drudgery and authoritarian abuse, while suggesting that their liberation fantasy was a dream of impossible symbiosis.

The Papins' ongoing humiliation begins in childhood when their single mother, herself a domestic servant, places them in a Catholic orphanage. Emilia, oldest of the three sisters, becomes a nun, but when Christine suggests that she too has been called by God, her mother angrily slaps her: "You'll slave for others like I do." (Emilia, Madame Papin suggests, had to take vows for having been raped as a child by the girls' never shown father.) Thus condemned, Christine (Sylvie Testud) develops a lifelong aversion toward her mother (Isabelle Renauld), against whom she struggles for possession of the littlest Papin, Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier).

A dream of impossible symbiosis: Parmentier and Testud in Murderous Maids
photo: Rialto
A dream of impossible symbiosis: Parmentier and Testud in Murderous Maids


Murderous Maids
Directed by Jean-Pierre Denis
Written by Denis and Michle Halberstadt, from L'Affaire Papin by Paulette Houdyer
Opens April 19

Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Tom Stoppard, from the novel by Robert Harris
Manhattan Pictures International
Opens April 19

The Second Annual Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival
BAM Rose Cinemas
Through April 22

For much of the movie, Christine channels her formidable single-mindedness and evident intelligence into securing a position where she and her docile kid sister can work together and, in effect, merge. The existing photographs of the Papin sisters—one taken a few months before the murders and the other in its aftermath—reveal an uncanny resemblance, despite their seven-year age difference. That the angular, homely Testud and soft, unformed Parmentier are physically dissimilar gives their relationship a particular pathos—these Papins don't mirror so much as complete each other.

Murderous Maids doesn't share the farcical aspects of Genet's The Maids, wherein the servants (intended to be played by men in drag) travesty their mistress, or Chabrol's La Cérémonie, in which the killers portrayed by Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert are giggling conspirators. Eschewing background music, Murderous Maids is an ascetic exercise in restraint, mainly designed to frame Testud's bustling performance. Feasting on the actress's long nose and sly crescent eyes, Denis takes care to prepare us for the violence beneath the pious exterior—Christine's willingness to break a wine bottle to fend off a suitor and her sudden fits of jealousy.

Half-mad but functional, this model servant is willing to assert her "rights" even as she mysteriously alternates between impulsive license and harsh repression. The milky, open-faced Léa is, by contrast, trusting, impressionable, and naively sensuous. "Is this wrong?" she timidly asks her big sister when their incestuous cuddling first starts to get serious. ("Oh no, sweetheart," comes the answer, "being whores would be much worse.") The Papins don't conspire to change the world; they prefer to reject it. Eventually, they construct their own spartan paradise up in the attic, complete with a lightbulb that must be kept secret from the kilowatt-counting Lancelins.

Throughout, Denis's close camera keeps the increasingly possessive Christine hemmed in. One spends much of the movie waiting for the preordained explosion of rage: Apparently crazed by the thought that she might be separated from Léa, Christine assumes the role of implacable, blood-drenched avenging fury. Denis doesn't stage the tabloid excitement around the subsequent trial, and although we do see the killer literally bouncing off her prison walls, he barely samples her paranoid rants and hallucinations. These so impressed the surrealists that, back in 1933, the posh art magazine Minotaur reprinted some, along with a psychoanalysis of the sisters' "Siamese souls" by the young Jacques Lacan.

Murderous Maids' French title, Les Blessures Assassines, suggests that the Papins inflicted their own injuries on the Lancelin women. Circling around the nature of the "wounds" without proposing a particular diagnosis, Denis presents the sisters as the bacchants of their own savage god. Murderous Maids dramatizes, but it doesn't explain. The inference in this genuinely unnerving movie is that nothing can.

Another sort of heritage film, Michael Apted's Enigma—adapted by Tom Stoppard from Robert Harris's bestseller—is a tale of English ingenuity during World War II, specifically the breaking of Nazi Germany's master code. Tasteful yet florid, the movie manages to evoke an entire lost tradition of British filmmaking—early Hitchcock, the David Lean of Brief Encounter, Thorold Dickinson's spy movies, Michael Powell's wartime thrillers.

The title refers not only to the Nazis' "Enigma machine" but also to the dreamy femme fatale Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), seen only in flashback and so thin as to be nearly transparent, who has driven ace cryptologist Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) to a nervous breakdown. This anorexic heartbreaker may even be a traitor—at least that's what the still fragile Jericho is thinking when he's brought back to rejoin the band of stuttering crossword puzzlers who populate the top-secret intelligence operation at Bletchley Park.

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