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Murderous Maids retells the grim saga of "l'Affaire Papin."

Murderous Maids Cleveland Cinematheque
Given the bloody excesses of French history, the 1933 murder of a bourgeois woman and her daughter in the quiet provincial town of Le Mans wouldn't seem to merit much attention, but to this day, "l'Affaire Papin" remains one of the most notorious and sensational crimes in Gallic history.

The case involved two sisters -- Christine Papin, aged 28, and Léa, 21 -- who worked as domestic servants at the home of a prosperous lawyer. One wintry evening, the two outwardly docile, obedient maids murdered and mutilated their employer's wife and daughter, gouging out their eyes and slashing their bodies with a carving knife. The case grew even more disturbing when it was revealed that the sisters were lovers, involved in an incestuous sexual relationship.

Newspapers of the day christened the girls "the savage lambs," while left-wing writers and philosophers seized upon the incident for its cultural and social implications. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir hailed the sisters as martyrs to the class struggle. Jean Genet wrote his famous play The Maids about them. Films followed, including 1994's Sister, My Sister and Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie (1995). Murderous Maids (Les Blessures Assassines), directed by Jean-Pierre Denis (Champ d'Honneur), is the latest film to tackle the grisly episode and, reportedly, is the first factual account of the incident and its aftermath, culled from courtroom records and eyewitness accounts.

The film proves unrelentingly grim -- and equally engrossing. It feels longer than 94 minutes, due both to the intense nature of the subject matter and to Testud's raw but remarkably controlled performance. Her face remains rigidly impassive for much of the film, yet she somehow manages to convey a total psychological meltdown. It's as if she is unraveling before our eyes, one degree at a time. As the naive, slightly obtuse Léa, Parmentier is also notable.

The film was shot in widescreen: an unconventional choice for such a character-driven film, but one that works well. Much of the film takes place inside houses or against buildings -- beautiful mansions that are dark, cold, and forbidding. These vast, static backgrounds serve to subtly accentuate the sense of isolation, alienation, even claustrophobia that grips Christine. Adding an almost frightening air of authenticity to the proceedings, Denis got permission to shoot the picture in Le Mans, the town where the real-life crime took place in 1933. No, he could not get permission to film in the actual house where the murders occurred.

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