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Sister My Sister

Review by Carrie Gorringe

Directed by Nancy Meckler.

Starring Joely Richardson,
Jodhi May, Julie Walters,
Sophie Thursfield

Screenplay by Nancy Kesselman,
from her play, My Sister In This House.

The infamous Le Mans case of 1933, in which the Papin sisters, employed as maids, hacked their employers to death, has been fertile ground for writers most notably Jean Genet and his 1948 play The Maids. No doubt the concept of murder as a means to personal transcendence appealed to Genet (at least in the theoretical sense), himself not immune to the lure of crime (he wrote his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers in 1942 while serving a long prison sentence). Born illegitimate in 1910, abandoned when young, in reform school by the age of ten, in and out of prison until 1948, surviving when outside by hustling and theft, Genet understood perfectly both the rage of being an outsider and the compulsion that such an outsider has to belong to the society that rejects him or her. Fortunately, he had sufficient talent and, with it, was able to oblige the literary world to accept him on his own terms; granted, he was helped along the way by the approximately 150 years of Romantic literary theory that proceeded him and which permitted him, in a paraphrase of Susan Sontag's succinct analysis of the Romantic mindset, to enter the abyss of human existence and then to report back to the greater world concerning his findings. But Genet's characters were those who could not file reports, their voices having been stymied by socio-economic deprivation. They act out of desperation and in extreme fashion, having no other means of personal liberation, even though their liberation is temporary and will probably lead to self-destruction.

Nancy Meckler's directorial debut, Sister My Sister, inevitably draws from this literary source but there is a historical dimension added to the mix (courtesy of screenwriter Kesselman, who studied the original case extensively). Christine (Richardson) has been a loyal and devoted servant to Madame Danzard (Walters) and her frumpy daughter Isabelle (Thursfield). Danzard is imperious to the point of tyranny; she not only inspects the results of her maid's dusting with the proverbial white gloves, but she crushes any hint of autonomy emanating from Isabelle as if it were an insect crawling out from underneath a lettuce leaf on her salad plate. It is, quite obviously, the type of repressive atmosphere that would break the will of the most tempered of spirits, and, as the narrative informs us, Christine and her sister Lea (May) were abandoned in a convent while very young by an indifferent mother, and poverty leaves Christine little choice but to accept the caprices of Madame Danzard. Nevertheless, by the time that Christine decides to bring her younger sister to the Danzard household to work as a maid, Christine and Madame Danzard have settled into a social détente which is somewhat unsettled around the edges (Christine's resentment of her inferior position vis-à-vis this domestic tyrant is already apparent, if of necessity muted), but functional. The fragility of this arrangement is made apparent from the moment that Lea enters the household. Lea, her spirit not as inhibited as that of her sister, chafes under the rigidity of Madame Danzard's rules. Soon, under the force of Lea's personality, Christine is soon set on the course of rebellion leading to murder, a situation exacerbated by the sisters' increasingly incestuous closeness.

Sister My Sister contains exquisitely measured performances from all of the principals at least for the first forty-five minutes. As portrayed by Walters, Madame Danzard has all the warmth of liquid nitrogen, and has the same upon those who are unfortunate enough to have to endure her presence, especially in the case of her daughter. Thursfield allows the character of Isabelle to subtly seethe with resentment not only over the physical attractiveness of the maids who serve her but also over the glaring irony that despite her mother's brutal treatment of them, they have more freedom than she, with all of her financial privilege, can ever hope for. Isabelle's spirit is broken, its shards capable only of rising up on occasion to sting their owner in her spite. Indeed, all of the characters in this bourgeois prison seem as if they are about to splinter into pieces at the first forbidden word spoken aloud. During the first half of this film, Richardson gives Christine a sense of self-control that is at once so palpable and so fragile that her eyes can convey a lifetime's worth of indescribable pain in one glance; her prickliness is such that it appears as if she might head into the stratosphere within two seconds if someone so much as brushed against her inadvertently. May perfectly captures the facade of breezy insouciance and what lies underneath it that is necessary for Lea to become the catalyst for the tragedy about to unfold. As the outsider who destroys the perverse equilibrium of the Danzard household, and who must do so because she cannot conform to its demands, it is Lea who is the most deeply troubled of the four women. She is willful and transcendent; not wishing to serve others, she wants others to serve her. And yet, given her socio-economic position, she can act neither openly nor, it might be argued, consciously. Therefore, Lea's only hope is to reestablish the interdependent relationship that she shared with her sister at the convent. Only after that has happened can events proceed to their illogical conclusion.

It would seem from the above that Sister My Sister has all of the necessary elements for a successful film. However, the central hinge of the script -- that of the incestuous relationship developing between the two sisters -- becomes less covert and subtle and far too explicit and clumsy. The explicitness belongs not so much to the realm of pornography than to that of overblown melodrama ripe enough to verge upon the rotten. The maids' frantic search for sensuality within the family sphere bears no resemblance to the world of the titillatingly erotic, but it does belong to the realm of the desperate. By virtue of an emotionally and financially-deprived upbringing, Christine and Lea are so lacking in both opportunity and imagination that their lesbian relationship can not be seen as a liberating force for either of the participants; indeed, their obsession with each other suggests the behavior of two survivors of a shipwreck who know that their drowning is imminent. Yet, for all of the deeply evocative portrayals of these women by Richardson and May, and the sympathy engendered thereby, the affair itself assumes an almost risible quality to the extent that it would have severely undermined the narrative trajectory had there not been a flashback at the beginning of the film to remind the viewer that these increasingly indiscreet writhings on screen will have deadly intent by the final reel. Only that thin thread prevents the film from going under by the force of its own stupidity. The switch in acting style from restraint to hyperbole doesn't help matters very much, since it undermines the careful pacing that Meckler established from the beginning, not to mention any interest in how the film will end because the denouement has been given away. As the film's pace becomes almost dizzying in its intensity, the suspense is killed right along with Madame Danzard and her daughter, and the maids' relationship merely stands there looking overblown.

In sum, Meckler should have realized how thin the line is between the suspenseful and the asinine when one is dealing with extremes of emotion. Yet, Sister My Sister is worth seeing, provided that one can stomach the film's alternations between the realms of overwrought sexuality and violence.

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