Given the gristly scenario of the true life story of housemaids Christine and Léa Papin, who savagely murdered their employers in 1933, it would be natural to assume that the double killing was motivated by Marxist principles—down with the wealthy and power to the people politics. Certainly the locals in Le Mans, France were shaken to the core by the brutal household slaughters, especially puzzling since the perpetrators were female. Thus, the unmotivated murders would be an easy target for sensationalism (along the lines of Lizzy Borden), so director Jean-Pierre Denis deserves kudos for not sinking to simplistic political explanations in Murderous Maids (Blessures assassines, Les) or manufacturing emotions via a manipulative soundtrack. However, his camera remains so objective that the viewer can hardly care. Newspaper stories or television coverage on murders far removed from the local scene accomplish as much, and are often as quickly forgotten.
Despite fine acting by Sylvie Testud as Christine (the more outgoing of the sisters and the one that supposedly initiated the murders) and the suitably timid Julie-Marie Parmentier as Léa, the camera remains at arms length throughout and never allows viewers inside. Only broad hints at what makes up their characters are sketched without commitment. So those who hold that the Papins built up resentment against the bourgeois can point to a few examples while better cases can be made for family dysfunction, including accusations of incestuous rape. Christine becomes the neglected middle child, as her cold-hearted mother (Isabelle Renauld) lavishes attention and favors to her younger sister and forbids Christine to join her older sister in convent life—"You'll work and slave like me," she bellows more than once, condemning Christine to work as maidservant.
Denied normal acceptance and love, Christine eventually turns to her one source of affection—younger sister, Léa. Beginning innocently as bed mates, they soon graduate to sexual exploration and then become full blown lovers, continually seeking clandestine opportunities to get naked and fondle each other. Their love affair never quite seems natural—their lovemaking always seems awkward and seems to come more from sad desperation than anything. The director objectively remains distant, so their inner character remains ambiguous. However, Madame Lancelin (Dominique Labourier) suspects the sisters are hard core closeted lesbians and determines to confirm her instincts. Ironically, Lancelin is the employer that shows Christine the most respect, but that is all forgotten when she catches the sisters in the act.
Without the depiction of the murders themselves, the film would be completely ignored—it slowly plods along uneventfully until the bloody climax. Even then, the director shows considerable restraint by averting the camera just before massive bludgeoning, slicing, spurting, and eye gouging. The victims artistically sprawl on the floor, their white gowns contrasting with the flowing reds and wooden floor—almost surreal when considering the languid narrative leading up to the horrific imagery.
The aftermath of the violence is swift, leaving viewers in a twilight zone between shock and news story apathy. In swift order Christine reveals her schizoid nature, the girls are sentenced, and post scripts reveal the historical facts—how Christine was sentenced to death but died four years later after the sentence was commuted and how Léa served 10 years hard labor and now lives out her last days in southern France.
Despite competent acting and workmanlike film construction, the film leaves me cold and disinterested in its characters. Fashioned more like historical docu-drama, Murderous Maids would play better as a curiosity on late night PBS channels than sell as a commercial venture for home viewers. Editors would simply have to pare down the blood a tad and the film would meet public television standards—it's only the regular news channels that can show that much violence.