MURDEROUS MAIDS - The Mad Sisters of Le Mans
In 1933, the French public was shocked and fascinated by a brutal double murder committed by two sisters in the provincial town of Le Mans. Christine and Lea Papin, who were working as servants, attacked and killed their employer, Madame Lancelin, and her daughter, during a power outage in the house. Even the police were shocked by the extreme violence of the crime; the victims' bodies had been horribly mutilated and their eyes clawed out. When Christine and Lea were brought to trial, their case was highly publicized and created further controversy when it was discovered that the two sisters were lovers. This infamous incident is now the subject of a new film, Murderous Maids (2001), directed by Jean-Pierre Denis.
For years, the Lancelin murders have held a strange fascination for the French, particularly those in the arts. Jean Genet wrote The Maids in 1947 and based his play on the Le Mans case (It was later made into a film in 1974 starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York). More significant are the number of films inspired by Christine and Lea Papin. First, there was Les Abysses (1963), directed by Nico Papatakis; then, A Judgment in Stone (aka The Housekeeper) appeared in 1986 starring Rita Tushingham and Jackie Burroughs (It was a Canadian film directed by Ousama Rawi). More recent versions include Sister, My Sister (1993), Nancy Meckler's version of the Wendy Kesselman play that emphasized the sexual politics (Joely Richardson and Jodi May played Christine and Lea, respectively) and Claude Chabrol's Le Ceremonie (1995) starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert; it presents the tragedy as a class struggle between the upper class bourgeoisie and the working class.
For Murderous Maids (2001), director Denis has chosen to focus closely on the true facts in the case, making it the most faithful film recreation yet of the Papin sisters' relationship and subsequent crime. In a New York Times article by Leslie Camhi, Denis was quoted as saying, "It's a story that touches upon our deepest, darkest impulses. These two women were presented as monsters in the press of the day. Well, I wanted to follow the path from monsters back to human beings." He also added, "During the trial, there were massive demonstrations of people from all social classes, calling for the death of the Papin sisters. Well, recently they were listed in a poll as among the best-known celebrities in the region. Le Mans is known for its 24-hour car race, its rillettes [a kind of meat spread] and the Papin sisters. History had digested their crime and made it a part of the patrimony."
Although the film is currently in limited release in the U.S., it is receiving excellent critical notices. J. Hoberman of The Village Voice wrote: "Revolution for the hell of it? The Papin sisters, who provided no motive for their homicidal mania, let alone its gruesome details of eye-gouging, corpse-mutilating brutality, did seem to embody a particularly extreme vision of class warfare, albeit in a realm beyond articulation. (Afterward, the women dutifully cleaned their implements and took to their bed.) Director Jean-Pierre Denis, returning to filmmaking after 12 years as a customs inspector, reconstructs what he can of the sisters' background, locating them in an oppressive context of household drudgery and authoritarian abuse, while suggesting that their liberation fantasy was a dream of impossible symbiosis....Murderous Maids dramatizes, but it doesn't explain. The inference in this genuinely unnerving movie is that nothing can."
For more information about Murderous Maids and to see if it is playing at a theatre in your area, visit RIALTO PICTURES.
By Jeff Stafford
BACK TO THE FUTURE AGAIN
It was inevitable that some enterprising Hollywood producer would remake The Time Machine as a big budget, state-of-the-art extravaganza with a heavy emphasis on special effects. While the 1960 film version directed by George Pal wasn't exactly a landmark in science fiction cinema, it was atmospheric, visually impressive and occasionally even thought-provoking. The special effects, though rather modest by today's standards, won an Oscar, Rod Taylor made a charismatic hero and Yvette Mimieux was memorable as Weena, the blonde Eloi maiden from the year 802,710. Best of all was the handsomely designed time machine which looked like some unclassifiable piece of Victorian furniture with flashing lights and fancy knobs. Although the film was also fairly faithful to the H.G. Wells novel on which it was based, it definitely reduced a great deal of Wells' political and sociological observations in the book to a few passing comments in the dialogue, but it least it had that! The new version of The Time Machine dispenses with most of the intellectual concerns of the Welles novel in favor of action, emphasizing the time travel aspects and a romance between Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), the time traveler, and Mara (Irish singer Samantha Mumba) of the Eloi tribe. Screenwriter John Logan confirmed the fantasy adventure approach in Dreamworks' new version in a New York Times article: "In making an entertaining movie, the political ideas fall to the side and probably rightfully so, because in the movies it wouldn't be a good mix." But the film DOES have two interesting connections to the past: Simon Wells, the great grandson of H.G. Wells, directs the new version, and Allan Young, who appeared in the 1960 version of The Time Machine, also makes a cameo appearance in this one.
The selection of Guy Pearce for the leading man is an interesting choice. In an interview on the official site for The Time Machine, director Wells said, "Try to find a lead actor who can be the kind of action star but also carries enough of the sense of being an intellectual, a man of thought. It is surprisingly difficult when you go down the list and start thinking, 'Well, I buy him as an action star but is he a professor?' The list gets quite short."
The critics don't appear to care for Pearce as the time traveler or this new version of The Time Machine based on incoming reviews but audiences seem hungry for a retelling of Welles' story. Just look at the opening weekend grosses - it was in the top position. At any rate, here are a few sample comments from critics around the country:
Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle said: "This new version of the H.G. Wells classic, before it loses its way, takes that longing and pumps it up beyond anything Wells had in mind....Pearce, a chameleon among actors, is obviously giving us a certain kind of guy, but here's the weird part: At times it looks as if he's giving us a specific guy, that he's actually imitating someone -- namely, the mayor of Oakland. That an Australian actor would model a character after Mayor Jerry Brown might sound far-fetched, except that Pearce even seems to have adopted a slightly husky voice for the first time in his career. This is either a homage or an uncanny accident. The picture is compelling in its first half-hour....But soon the movie switches gears. It stops being about a search for the past, loses its emotional hook and finds nothing nearly as compelling to replace it."
Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times wrote: "Based on the celebrated 1895 H.G. Wells novella, "Time Machine" was previously filmed by George Pal in 1960 in a much-loved Rod Taylor-Yvette Mimieux version that the new one makes several references to. This "Time Machine" has an even stronger connection to the past: Its director, Simon Wells, is H.G.'s great-grandson. But, as both Pal and the current team discovered, theoriginal book, as much a class-conscious sociopolitical tract as a science-fiction novel, was rather thin on plot, to the point of calling its protagonist nothing more than "the Time Traveler." This new version (written by John Logan and "based on the  screenplay by David Duncan" - a rarely seen credit) has understandably worked hard to remedy that situation. Perhaps too hard. So much effort has been put into creating a believable world for the traveler to come from and a creditable back story for his trip that what happens 800,000 years in the future seems to belong to a completely different - and less interesting- picture.....What he finds is anything but pleasant, and, armed with this knowledge, the film changes tone completely. Humanity has apparently split into two different races, the tree-hugging Eloi, epitomized by the fetching Mara (Irish recording artist Samantha Mumba), and the nasty and brutish Morlocks, led by the snarling Uber-Morlock (Jeremy Irons made up like a demented version of rock star Edgar Winter).The centerpiece of this section is a busy action sequence of partially animatronic Morlocks running around and terrorizing the Eloi. It's acceptably done, but the violent, unpleasant tone is so at variance with the rest of the film that it's more disconcerting than anything else, as if "The Little Princess" had suddenly morphed into "Rollerball."
Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times proclaimed The Time Machine "a witless recycling of the H.G. Wells story from 1895, with the absurdity intact but the wonderment missing. It makes use of computer-aided graphics to create a future race of grubby underground beasties, who like the characters in "Battleship Earth" have evolved beyond the need for bathing and fingernail clippers. Since this race--the Morlocks--is allegedly a Darwinian offshoot of humans, and since they are remarkably unattractive, they call into question the theory that over a long period of time a race grows more attractive through natural selection. They are obviously the result of 800,000 years of ugly brides.....In broad outline, this future world matches the one depicted in George Pal's 1960 film "The Time Machine," although its blond, blue-eyed race of Eloi have been transformed into dusky sun people. One nevertheless tends to question romances between people who were born 800,000 years apart and have few conversations on subjects other than not being eaten. Convenient, that when humankind was splitting into two different races, both its branches continued to speak English."
Regardless of how this new version of The Time Machine fares, filmmakers will probably return to the H.G. Wells novel again for inspiration in future years. His book certainly has provided Hollywood with plenty of previous time travel flicks that clicked with moviegoers - Time After Time (1979) starring Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells and David Warner as Jack the Ripper in 20th century San Francisco, and Back to the Future (1985) and its two sequels with Michael J. Fox. For more information about The Time Machine, visit the Official Web Site.
By Jeff Stafford