In a provincial town in France, 1932, a widow, Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) and her daughter, Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield) live an insular, suffocated life with their maid, Christine Papin (Joely Richardson).
Christine’s younger sister, Lea (Jodhi May), comes to work at the house, which is when the action of the film begins.
Madame Danzard runs her home with an iron fist in a white glove that is run over every surface, in search of any speck of dust. A mere look sends one or other of the maids scrambling to correct the problem in silence.
Silence is the order of the day in the Danzard household.
When not scrubbing, polishing, cooking and serving, the sisters spend their time in their shared room—a request they made—sharing a room and bed. The savings delighted Madame, of course, who is tight as a drum when it comes to money.
And affection—though utterly silent with the maids, she hectors her daughter—never showing a hint of so much as liking the girl. Sometimes emotionally manipulating her for her own amusement—teasing her with a trip to Paris, then, once the girl is excited at the prospect of a trip, rescinding the offer, saying the fashions there wouldn’t suit her daughter. Another time she blows out the girl’s own birthday candle so she can sing along to the opera playing on the radio.
Christine and Lea are happiest being alone together—the elder sister protective of the younger, the younger in wide-eyed awe of the elder.
Their mother, who is never seen, is a wedge between them. Lea is the favourite, as she’s always done as she’s told—turning all of her earnings over to their mother.
The struggle between Christine and their mother to control Lea eventually comes to a head; the girls already close bond becoming even more so in the aftermath.
The Danzard’s rarely have visitors, so it’s chiefly the four women cloistered away in oppressive silence—mother and daughter working on various crafts or playing card games, playing their own mind games with one another; sisters working diligently or spending time in their room, though Christine does make lace and underthings for her sister to wear.
As time carries on, and the sisters’ relationship crosses into darker, illicit territory, they both become more careless in their work. Previously meticulous in every way, they begin missing spots, breaking things and Christine’s typically perfect sewing may (or may not) suffer.
The centre cannot hold, as it were, and, eventually, one mistake too many is made. Madame Danzard does the unthinkable—she insults Lea—and Christine cannot, will not, abide that.
This is yet another service porn film I was greatly enamoured with long before I had ever heard the phrase ‘service-oriented submission’, but I do enjoy watching someone clean properly. I also apparently have an affection for service porn films set in 1932. Go figure.
Speaking of things I’m interested in—there’s a psychological condition called folie a deux, which is when two people who would be law-abiding citizens otherwise become dangerous criminals when together.
You see, the Papin sisters in this film—and the events portrayed—are based on real events. Christine and Lea Papin were real people. There are other films, books and plays based on their case like The Maids, which is based on the Jean Genet play of the same name, La Ceremonie, based on a Ruth Rendell novel called A Judgement in Stone and Les Blessures assassines. The film Sister My Sister is based on a play called ‘My Sister in This House’ by Wendy Kesselman.
There’s an excellent, academic book about them by Rachel Edwards and Keith Reader called The Papin Sisters.
But, you know, I don’t find them interesting or anything.
Folie a deux’s are rather the polar opposite of a healthy power exchange, in that the latter brings out the best in both parties and the former brings out the absolute worst.
Another example of folie a deux on film (based on a real life situation) is Heavenly Creatures, which I recommend highly.
What’s kinky about this film?
Aside from service porn, this will appeal to people interested in sibling incest (as a consensual kink, I hope). If that’s a turn off for you—avoid this one. There’s not a lot of nudity, though there is a little, and not a great deal in the way of sex, but it’s still there. And it’s pretty hot. What can I say—I like my films dark.
Speaking of darkness—the cinematography is outstanding. The palette consists of browns and greys—even when the girls occasionally go outside it seems like it’s always half-way between autumn and winter. (In other words, I love it.)
An interesting note—the maids and the Danzards never speak to one another. They speak amongst themselves, but not across class lines. The film consists of long silences as it is. Like The Piano Teacher, the director allows the actors room to do what they do best.
Also, no men appear on screen—we hear male voices twice, but they aren’t even credited. Not over the end credits nor on IMDb.
The acting is impeccable. Sophie Thursfield is the only person I haven’t seen in anything before or since, but she’s hilarious as the put-upon yet sarcastic daughter.
Everything about the film is pitch perfect.
If you like character-driven, darker dramas, this is a great one for it.