Lucidity, austerity and quiet compassion are peculiar virtues to ascribe to a movie about a horrific real-life murder case, but those are among the best qualities of Jean-Pierre Denis' "Murderous Maids" ("Les Blessures Assassines").
Made with spellbinding clarity and tact, shot near the actual locations by an uncompromising cinema realist, and featuring a near-perfect cast, the movie tells once again the tale of Christine and Lea Papin, two French sisters who committed one of France's most sensational murders in 1933, in the village of Le Mans.
There, on a February evening, the sisters -- who worked as maids in the Lancelin household -- bludgeoned, stabbed and mutilated two of their employers, Madame Lancelin and her daughter Genevieve (played in the film by Dominique Labourier and Marie Donnio), leaving the corpses in pools of gore on the first floor and staying in the house until the police, later that night, found them in their attic room, naked together in bed.
You couldn't get much more sensational than that in 1933, and the story has already been the subject of a famous play by Jean Genet ("The Maids') and a lesser-known 1963 film by Nico Papatakis ("Les Abysses"). But Denis' picture may well stand as the definitive dramatic treatment, largely because he refuses to see the killers as either objects of horror, objects of lust or, as Jean-Paul Sartre vainly attempted, as heroines of the class struggle.
Instead he and his co-screenwriter-producer, Michele Halberstadt, portray the two -- 28-year-old Christine (Sylvie Testud) and 21-year-old Lea (Julie-Marie Parmentier) -- as simple girls trapped together in a mostly joyless existence who eventually explode into violence. It's a tribute to this film, shot in cold colors and precise images without any musical score, that by the end we comprehend how they could have descended into such horror.
Following the details in Paulette Houdyer's book "L'Affaire Papin," Denis paints a vivid picture of lower-class entrapment. The sisters are subject to sexual abuse and forced into servitude by their cynical, alcoholic mother, Clemence (Isabelle Renaud), finally finding refuge only with each other. Christine is a thin, intense ex-convent girl. Her younger sister, Lea, is bovine and smiley. And though the Lancelins are relatively kind and fair with them -- unlike most of their pervious employers -- we can see why they retreat into a private world of play and sex (a speculation) in their attic room. Their ferocity, which shocked all of France, is carefully prepared for as the sudden explosion of a resentment bubbling throughout the film, as well as Christine's obvious and highly convincing emotional illness.
Denis, a regional director who won the Cannes camera d'Or in 1980 (but has been absent from the big screen since 1987's "Champ d'Honneur") is a fine director, and here he has a model cast. But the film's most remarkable element is the performance of Testud. A convent girl who probably never should have left, her Christine has a gaunt-faced, pale-eyed intensity that holds you in a vise, as well as a terrifying sense of withdrawal from the world, bottomless hurt and veiled rage. It's a hypnotic performance, possibly one of the screen's very best portrayals of a pathological murderer. In this case, perhaps the film's most terrifying aspect is the way Christine holds at least part of our sympathy right to the end.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Denis; written by Denis, Michele Halberstadt; photographed by Jean-Marc Fabre; edited by Marie-Helene Dozo; sets designed by Bernard Vezat; produced by Michele Halberstadt, Laurent Petin. French, subtitled. A Rialto Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:34. No MPAA rating (adult: nudity, sensuality, language and violence).
Christine Papin -- Sylvie Testud
Lea Papin -- Julie-Marie Parmentier
Clemence -- Isabelle Renaud
The Veteran -- Francois Leventhal
Madame Lancelin -- Dominique Labourier
Monsieur Lancelin -- Jean-Gabriel Nordmann Genevieve Lancelin -- Marie Donnio
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times