“Have you noticed they don’t speak anymore?”
Sister My Sister directed by Nancy Meckler is a British film based on the gruesome murders committed by the Papin sisters in France in the 1930s. When the film begins, Christine (Joely Richardson) is working as a maid at the home of Madame Danzard and her daughter. Christine persuades Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) to also employ her younger sister Lea (Johdi May). Madame Danzard is at first thrilled with the prospect of employing both sisters. The convent-raised maids are quiet, docile, industrious and excellent seamstresses. Christine and Lea Papin are portrayed as abnormally close sisters, with Christine as the dominant, overly protective one of the pair. Madame Danzard brags to her daughter that they’ll be the envy of their acquaintances as the maids are “pearls” and what’s more to the point, it’s “two for the price of one.”
Madame Danzard’s delight at her new maids soon turns sour. A controlling, petty woman who can’t even stand her own daughter, Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield), Madame Danzard is constantly picking at the maids, humiliating them and discussing them in front of others as though they are inanimate objects. Scenes emphasize the humiliations and punishments the maids suffer on a regular basis.
Sister My Sister offers a generous, sympathetic–albeit inaccurate–portrayal of the sisters. The sisters are portrayed as attractive girls, and there are hints that Madame Danzard believes they are dressing above their ‘station.’ This is a particularly sensitive subject for Madame Danzard as her own daughter, Isabelle, is portrayed as dumpy, clumsy and unmarriageable. The French film Murderous Maids is another version of the notorious crime which while still sympathetic to the sisters presents additional background material on the girls’ upbringing, and their careers prior to their employment with an ill-fated employer (whose real name was Madame Lancelin). And this additional focus makes Murderous Maids a slightly more accurate version of the real-life event. Both films capitalize on the inherently unhealthy master/servant situation, but Sister My Sister, is vastly more entertaining–thanks to the marvelous performance of Julie Walters as the petty, spiteful, and slightly sadistic Madame Danzard. Murderous Maids is almost too painful to watch at times, but Sister My Sister concentrates on the pathological relationships between four slightly deranged women and the catastrophic consequences of them all living in the same house.