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).

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.

The Royal Navy needs Jericho to redecipher the German code before the Nazis sink the convoy of American supply ships. Fortunately, that problem requires less than half his giant brain—leaving the rest to investigate missing Claire in the company of her all-too-readable roommate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet, courageously playing dowdy). Jericho evolves from cerebral ditherer into resolute action hero—able to leap onto moving boats and trains and elude cops through his daredevildriving. He even confounds the smooth spy master (Jeremy Northam, in the movie’s drollest performance), who wafts through the plot, fanning the flames of mystery.

Enigma is reasonably fun to watch. The editing is elliptical, with much crosscutting between the green fields of Bletchley Park and the gray swell of the North Atlantic. Britain’s boho brainiacs wrestle with the code even as U-boats gather and Hester, working on her own, comes to a realization. Adding to the cosmic simultaneity, the Germans are shown broadcasting from a mass grave on the Eastern front. Moving quickly on two tracks, Enigma doesn’t coddle the audience. But neither does it play fair. The narrative takes several fast turns and stops short with the sudden introduction of new material; the exposition is hurried and lazily predicated on characters’ thinking aloud.

British historians were justifiably upset several years back when the Hollywood submarine drama U-571 credited Americans with breaking the Nazi code. But Enigma has come under fire for similar reasons. Patriotic Poles point out that it was their compatriots, not the Brits, who captured the Enigma machine. Along these lines, the movie adds insult to injury, but I’d be betraying the movie reviewer’s code if I told you why.

The second edition of the Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival features two of the most popular documentaries of recent years—Aviva Kempner’s feel-good The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1999) and Sandi DuBowski’s agonized Trembling Before G-d (2001)—each, in its way, an evocation of Jewish heroism. Less known but equally deserving, Joel Katz’s Strange Fruit (2002) provides a history of the haunting protest ballad associated with Billie Holiday but written by left-wing Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol. Another offbeat music doc, Pierre-Henry Salfati’s Jazzman From the Gulag (1999), follows the unique career of trumpeter Eddie Rosner from Weimar Germany and ’30s Poland to his apotheosis and ruin in Stalin’s Russia. Richard Broadman’s neighborhood oral history Brownsville Black and White (2000) has a particular Brooklyn resonance.

Jewish film festivals tend to be stronger on documentaries than on dramatic features: The main examples of the latter are the rueful Israeli comedy Yana’s Friends (1999) and a pair of vintage Yiddish-language features screening as an accompaniment to the Yiddish actor-saga The Komediant.

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