As the subject of writings for, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Lacan, as well as several film adaptations, the Papin sisters occupy a particular place in popular true-crime mythos. At once the champions of the lower class and perpetrators of bestial brutality, Christine and Léa Papin, maidservants in the Lancelin household in 1930s France, shocked the world when they murdered their employer, Madame Lancelin, and her daughter, Genevieve. Compounded by the sisters’ possible incest and the grotesque details of the murders (multiple stabbings, bludgeonings, and eye-gouging), the case has for years fascinated and repelled criminologists and psychologists alike.
Murderous Maids, the bluntly titled new film about the Papin sisters, makes a case for the inevitability of violence (or at least violent thoughts) in the culture of servitude and the hell of the domestic. After her employer mistakenly calls her Zépherine, Christine (Sylvie Testud) declares, “So this is what a maid is: a doormat for others, without a name.” The Papin sisters do, however, possess names, though not of their choosing: after their infamous deeds, they are called the Savage Lambs, the Monsters of Le Mans.
To an extent, the Papin sisters serve as metaphor for the predestination of domestic employment and, as the film lightly implies, for all humiliating working-class labor and for women stuck in the domestic sphere. It’s a doomed lifestyle their upper-class counterparts do not — cannot — understand; Madame Lancelin (Dominique Lebourier) and her daughter Genevieve (Marie Donnio) observe, “If they [Christine and Léa] had any skills, they’d rise above their station.” But it’s not a lack of skills that confines them to their maidservant roles. The sisters’ mother, Clémence (Isabelle Renauld), is a prostitute who keeps a tight grip on her children’s lives, and refuses to let them consider any other type of career: “You’ll slave for others, like I did!”
And so the only other possible choice tends to be the convent. This is the path taken by Emilia, the oldest Papin sister, though Murderous Maids makes it quite clear that her choice is barely preferable. It’s even more difficult for Emilia to exert any power over her own life, and she, too, exchanges her birth name for another: Sister Mary of the Nativity. When Christine expresses interest in the sisterhood, Clémence threatens, if Christine disobeys, to send her beloved father to jail for allegedly raping Emilia (the implication being that Clémence may be a liar). “He called her his little Clémence,” her mother says, which seems to affect Christine more than the possibility of rape itself. Her frustration with her mother is a catalyst for later dramatic (and murderous events), more so, it seems, than the unfair nature of the servant lifestyle.
Younger Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier), upon whom Christine dotes, faces a similar domestic destiny. Hers comes much quicker; at 14, she has already been hired as a maid. Christine’s efforts secure Léa a place in the Lancelin household, so the two can work together. At first, compared to other families, the Lancelins are a dream. While strict, Madame Lancelin also appears to hold some respect for her workers, “Servants aren’t allowed to ask for references, so why should we?”
But trouble lies ahead, in the form of the burgeoning sexual tension between the girls. “Is this wrong?” Léa asks Christine during their first encounter. “No, sweetheart,” her sister responds, “being whores would be worse.” If they rely not on men, but on each other, they will never become their mother — the main fear faced by Christine. Happy and in love — obviously it can’t last, just as the sisters can’t keep their devastating secret forever.
Murderous Maids never really passes judgment on the sisters for their transgressions (even at the end, when they’ve brutally murdered the Lancelins). Throughout, the slow-moving camera dwells on item after item, as though a microscope, gazing at objects and people surrounding the Papins like parts of the whole puzzle that makes up their twisted psyches. It is as though every small domestic object has some place in aggravating Christine’s dissatisfaction, while at the same time causing her to desire what she cannot have: wealth, and thus independence.
Subjected to the same scientific, probing gaze, people, like the Lancelins, also become domestic objects to be treasured, to envy, and, eventually, to destroy. The camera examines so many fascinating things — from cast-iron stove rings to tiny irons to a bloodied pewter pitcher — that we feel that, if only we could fit them all together, they might lead to revelation, or at least provide motivation for the Papins. That is the brilliance of Murderous Maids: it proffers all the pieces to the case and yet never reveals a pattern — sometimes, there simply isn’t one.
But, unfortunately, for all its attempts to avoid pointing fingers, the film occasionally veers towards romanticism. For example, there is a simply overwhelming eroticism in the girls’ sexual exploration. While, hopefully, Denis was simply trying to illustrate the intense love between the girls, the imagery comes across more as voyeuristic pleasure for the audience. The camera, here, becomes a bit too curious, and, as the plot progresses, the sex scenes become frequent, explicit, and exploitative. Substitute a pair of blond twins for the Papins, and you’ve got yourself a Playboy spread.
More interestingly, the movement from sisters to lovers parallels the movement from meek servants to brutal murderers. Slowly building to explosive climaxes, both movements are initiated by Christine, who emerges as dominant in various ways. Sylvie Testud, whose performance is filled with wonderful nuances, is by turns half-broken with sadness and twisted in rage; often, the camera lingers on her face long after it needs to, revealing a whole spectrum of hidden emotion. Devoutly Christian, sternly moralistic, and furiously protective, Christine also has an intense temper; she throws coffee cans against the wall if they won’t open, and when Genevieve gives Léa a sweater, she throws it in the garbage and seethes, “The smell makes me sick. It’s on you, now.”
It’s the stench of the domestic, of course, and the stench of the Lancelins’ wealth, a symbol of the girls’ subservience. Most importantly, a gift of clothing is too close to the scarves, necklaces, and heeled shoes that mother Clémence receives from her employer — for whom she works, mostly, in the bedroom.
What motivates Christine, then, is not a hatred of men or of the society that enforces strict economic rules; instead, it is the depth of hatred for her mother. Everything she does is an attempt to escape, or help her sisters escape, from under Clémence’s thumb. With this understanding, Murderous Maids functions more as a reverse-Oedipal psychological examination rather than a social commentary. Curious, even disappointing, since Murderous Maids brings up class issues throughout the film.
In death, the Lancelins lie among their prized household treasures like so much bloody decoration. The girls who have, up until this point, functioned as domestic objects remain alive, huddled together in bed, naked, drenched in blood. It is a compelling image, if not a particularly new one: forced confinement within a household makes people into coffee cans to be thrown against the walls, stove-irons to be shattered, eggs to be broken. But a textual epilogue, on the eventual fates of the real Papin sisters, makes Murderous Maids seem strangely like a historical document (as an interesting side note, Léa was discovered alive, at age 88, during the making of this film).
This epilogue implies that Murderous Maids is a “true” depiction of the events in 1933, which is unfair, to say the least. Still, even though its lack of focus makes one wish for a more fully metaphorical film, certain images linger: the girls in bed together; Léa stabbing the Lancelins with a bizarrely mature determinacy (“Like you,” she tells Christine, “as much as you”); and Christine’s own bitter, ultimately confusing fury. What remains is a slippery discomfort at the terrible intimacy that the audience has witnessed, deeper than any typical romance. It is the sisters’ search to become each other, even more than to be together, that is so utterly disturbing. “I know where I came from,” Léa tells her sister: not from her mother, but from the creative force of Christine’s consuming love.