Inspired by the true life case of two maid sisters in 1930’s France who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter, Sister, My Sister makes for rather disturbing but intriguing viewing like a cross between a period study on class and a darkly historical crime drama. Headed by a fine quartet of performances, be prepared for both shock and horror as the story takes you to some uncomfortable places.
It’s 1932 in Le Mans, France and Léa Papin( Jodhi May) comes from a convent to work as a maid for stern and stuffy Madame Danzard( Julie Walters) and her slovenly daughter Isabelle(Sophie Thursfield). She has gotten the job on the recommendation of her older sister Christine( Joely Richardson), who has worked in the household for a while. The sisters haven’t seen each other in years and are glad to finally be together with the estranged other. Neither group of women speaks to the other, much in the way that a bourgeoisie household works where people know their place and don’t deviate from tradition. Christine and Léa share a room upstairs and a bed, their workload is such that their main day off is a Sunday until 4 o’clock. Out of the sisters, Christine is the dominant sibling with underlying fury, while Léa is ever so eager to please and green in a lot of matters.Though the sisters are close, we see after they visit their mother that we never see, but know favours over Christine and takes a cut of their wages, that their past is very troubled. Her mother’s actions infuriate the temperamental and controlling Christine, who feels the sting of her mother’s abandonment years before to a convent and her deep devotion to her sister. Despite a jealousy towards her younger sister, the cloistered environment in their room and isolation from outside gives way to feelings of love far beyond just sisterly affection. Madame Danzard is rather oblivious to the attraction going on under her nose and is more interested with how well they are as obedient maids for her and her daughter. Her daughter Isabelle is a lady of not much in the way of prospects due to her sullen demeanour and lack of effort in appearance, though Madame insists and brow eats her over searching for a husband to secure her future. With the unhealthy attachment burgeoning between the sisters upstairs, the maid duties carried out by them begins to slip and Madame Danzard, with her beady eyes and vicious tongue, makes it known that she isn’t happy with them. Madame’s initial delight at getting two maids for nearly the price of one melts away to reveal a picky, vindictive woman who goes out of her way to humiliate her servants. Tensions start to boil over as the relationship between the sisters intensifies and Madame becomes more petty and cruel. Finally after nearly a year of suspicion and mounting tensions, everything comes to a head with a savagely, violent act that shatters the house.
Skilled director Nancy Meckler crafts a very claustrophobic and insular atmosphere of repressed emotions and a feeling on inequality amidst the four women, busting taboos too on the topic of incest between sisters. Meckler clearly knows what she is doing because she hooks you from the opening frame with the prospect of mystery, horror and drama with psychological overtones permeating the relationships explored. Sister, My Sister is in effect a chamber piece as it really only features four characters and all are female. A male photographer is heard speaking yet never seen by the audience, making us pay special attention to the ladies at the heart of this twisted yet grimly fascinating film. Screenwriter Wendy Kesselman knows the power of shared silences and how they translate into the struggle of class within the doomed house. They also highlight how not communicating due to the roles that society has doled out to these women can give rise to resentment and much misunderstanding, in this case of a deadly and vicious kind. I don’t believe the film condones the actions of the Papin sisters, rather Sister, My Sister speculates on what may have lead them to this act and does so with intrigue. A little more detail on certain points in the story might have been beneficial, but the impact of this haunting film more than makes up for quibbles. The cloistered environment transports to the viewer as the film rarely leaves the confines of Madame’s home; further sealing the sisters away from reality and letting them retreat into the taboo world of incest. The bedroom scenes between Christine and Léa are unusual and bathed in a bright, almost angelic light, suggesting that their closeness is a result of repression from being in a convent and that they have found an uncomfortably codependent relationship that goes beyond what is right and wrong. Yet they can’t quite see that and have become that isolated that they are above it, making the bright light of the scenes both ironic(given the murders they commit) and starkly noticeable in a film that’s largely quite dark in terms of visual style. Many scenes don’t have music, the main sound being either a clock ticking away or a tap dripping, allowing when music does appear to have atmospheric impact following pronounced silences and uncomfortable pauses.
What really anchors this already interesting and darkly enticing film is the quartet of lead performances. Joely Richardson dominates as the dutiful yet stifled and resentful Christine. Richardson’s faces burns with alarming and disquieting hate that at first is subtle, then blows up in powerful and shocking ways. It’s a credit to Richardson that we are enthralled by this woman who is coiled and just about to snap emotionally owing to not being able to control love, not knowing when to stop and childhood scars that haven’t gone. Jodhi May matches her as the initially timid Léa, who’ll do anything to please but is so easily lead that she can’t help but feel a bit of rebellious streak in the presence of her sister. May has this feeling of innocence to her, with her youthful face and sympathetic eyes, that could just as quickly turn to despair and dangerous once pushed. Both actresses work spectacularly together, possessing a quivering desire, unspoken bond, shared paranoia and feelings that may come spilling out in unexpected ways if they aren’t careful. Julie Walters, who for me never disappoints, shows off her versatility in convincing portraying a petty, vicious and mean-spirited lady who likes everything just so and is clearly a product of her snooty upbringing. Walters covers the part with prim manners and even a bit of humour, but she gets to the heart of this woman who believes she’s above everyone and won’t tolerate insubordination of any kind. Sophie Thursfield is given probably the most underdeveloped role, yet injects what she can into it. She’s mainly required to be the punching bag for her cruel mother but also strangely close to such a horrible woman. The relationship between Christine and Léa may be disturbing , but the one between Madame Danzard and Isabelle is just as alarming in how unhealthy the heaps of abuse Madame throws on her daughter are, who is then bemused, followed by being a figure of loyalty like a servile dog.
A haunting movie of repression, jealousy and class struggles, Sister, My Sister will no doubt leave you reeling and disturbed by its content that is grimly rendered but very intriguing to watch.