Friday July 14, 1995
"Sister My Sister" is a flawless film of astonishing power and impact created from a steadily increasing tension combined with acute observation of human behavior and attention to detail. Julie Walters, Joely Richardson, Jodhi May and Sophie Thursfield make up a superb ensemble cast in this chamber drama, set in 1932, in which dark humor underlines dire events.
Director Nancy Meckler and writer Wendy Kesselman are every bit as meticulous as the villain of their piece, a French provincial widow (Julie Walters) obsessed with perfection in the care of her Le Mans townhouse.
The rigorous, spare style of "Sister My Sister" reflects its claustrophobic tale of sexual repression and power plays, as did Zhang Yimou's strikingly similar "Raise the Red Lantern."
Both films take us into the closed pre-World War II of women. Walters' Madame Danzard is an exceedingly proper widow of awe-inspiring smugness and complacency. Except for the occasional outing and social event, she spends most of her life in her parlor, dictating orders to her exceptionally obedient, near-mute servant (Richardson) and relentlessly crushing the spirit of her near-adult daughter (Thursfield), whom she dresses like a child. Danzard is so caught up in herself that she's oblivious to the sarcasm of her miserable daughter's retorts.
Richardson's Christine has sufficient insight into herself to realize that she responds well to Madame's iron hand but not enough to realize that bringing her pretty younger sister (May) into the household could prove disastrous.
Initially, the move seems ideal: Madame will be getting two servants for the price of one, and Christine will be getting the companionship she craves. What Christine surely couldn't have anticipated is that she would find herself falling madly in love with her sister, who would respond to her feelings in kind. How long can two young women, overwhelmed by a grand passion, behave like robots?
The women of "Sister My Love," like the nobleman's indolent, competing wives of "Raise the Red Lantern," are virtually without alternatives to directing their energies toward destroying themselves or each other or both. The narrowness and formality of the existence of the women in both films is truly suffocating, and Meckler and Kesselman capture this atmosphere every bit as forcefully as Zhang Yimou did.
A phonograph is one of the exceedingly few reminders that the Chinese film is set in the '20s; electricity is Danzard's only concession to the 20th Century in her gloomy 19th-Century residence.
If Kesselman wrote four wonderful parts, then Meckler got four equally fine portrayals. In a radical change of pace, Walters, an irresistibly showy actress, reveals tremendous restraint, creating an almost comically monstrous woman. Her Danzard dominates the household, but Richardson dominates the film as a woman whose emotions are increasingly at war with her circumstances.
May is a lovely innocent undeservedly caught up in madness, and Thursfield is admirable as a woman who has only her wit to protest her lot in life. It is a testament to Meckler and Kesselman's cinematic sense and that of their crew that it comes as a surprise that "Sister My Sister," based on the same incident that inspired Genet's "The Maids," was first a play.
Sister My Sister, 1995. Unrated. A Seventh Art release of a Film Four International and British Screen presentation of an NFH production. Director Nancy Meckler. Producer Norma Heyman. Screenplay by Wendy Kesselman; based on her play. Cinematographer Ashely Rowpe. Editor David Stiven. Costumes Music Stephen Warbeck. Production designer Caroline Ames. Art director Frank Walsh. Set dresser Luana Hanson. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Julie Walters as Madame Danzard. Joely Richardson as Christine. Jodhi May as Lea. Sophie Thursfield as Isabelle Danzard.