Such Devoted Sisters
The true story behind “Sister My Sister” has intrigued artists for 50 years, and who can blame them? It is an irresistible dark tale of murder, incest and class struggle, an event so bizarre that a novelist might hesitate to invent it. In 1934, in a provincial village in France, two sisters named Christine and Lea worked as maids for a stern middle-aged matron and her grown daughter. The sisters began an incestuous relationship. One day, when Madame and her daughter returned home, sure to be on a rampage because the iron had blown the fuses in the house, the maids murdered their employers.
“Sister My Sister,” which opens today at Cinema Village, gives this story a far different treatment from its most famous telling, in Jean Genet’s play “The Maids.” This is an emotional Gothic, a psychological horror story that focuses on the sisters’ increasingly tortured relationship in the claustrophobic house. It is a small film, but a chillingly effective one.
From the start, it is clear that this is less a tale of class struggle than of misplaced emotion and twisted psychology. A brief opening sequence shows two little girls, the older inordinately concerned with caring for the younger. The camera then travels along the bloody, curved stairway of the cluttered Victorian house, and flashes back to the day when Lea (Jodhi May) arrived to join her elder sister, Christine (Joely Richardson), at the home of the woman the film calls Mme. Danzard (Julie Walters). The sisters share a bed in a cramped attic room, speaking only to each other, seeing only the demanding Madame and her frumpy daughter, Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield).
Nancy Meckler, the director, and Wendy Kesselman, who based this script on her own play, “My Sister in This House,” create a strong inbred atmosphere by limiting the cast to four characters. Even the male photographer who takes the sisters’ picture is heard but never seen. It is this extreme isolation, the film suggests, that provokes the sisters to turn their thwarted desires toward each other.
Christine is a perfectionist about her work. Lea, it seems, is too young to know much about anything. Christine resents their mother, who sent her out to work at a young age, and is jealously possessive of her sister.
The sisters’ passion develops slowly and discreetly. The film makers realize that what is suggested, or shown briefly, is often more powerful than what a camera might capture by intruding on every private moment. It is Lea who first reaches for her sister physically, and Ms. May is masterly at capturing the psychological mystery behind this story. Is Lea a true innocent, or preternaturally mature and depraved? Ms. Richardson is equally good, as Christine resists what is obviously a forbidden attraction for her, at least for a while. Eventually their affair becomes an obsessive escape and torment for them both.
The film’s major flaw is that Mme. Danzard and Isabelle are so flat and functional. The mother is so self-absorbed she blows out the candle on her own daughter’s birthday cake. Isabelle, a young woman with a Buster Brown haircut, clomps around eating chocolates. Presented as the sisters’ opposites, the Danzards are silly women with benign secrets, nattering away at a card game while in the attic Christine is languorously kissing her sister’s legs. Though “Sister My Sister” is played for its sense of emotional menace rather than sexual titillation, there is enough of that to add an erotic edge.
The strangest twist of all comes at the end, when the film reveals what became of the murderous sisters. Christine died in an insane asylum four years after the killings. Lea served 20 years in prison, then worked as a chambermaid until her death in 1982. Where she got her references is another mystery altogether.
Caryn James, NY Times, June 23, 1995