Sister My Sister is a very disturbing film based on the true story of French sisters, Christine and Lea Papin, who murdered their employer’s wife and daughter in 1933. You can read about them here and here. However, I will review Sister My Sister for what it is… a movie.
Now, on to Sister My Sister. First of all filmmaker, Nancy Meckler, did an excellent job of telling this story. Sister My Sister starts off with a black and white sequence of two young girls together. The older one is taking care of the younger one, then they are playing together. They are dirty and obviously poor. Then the mother comes in and takes the younger girl. It is clear the mother is quite fond of the younger daughter. She walks away with the little girl as the little one waves goodbye to the older daughter. Afterwards, Sister My Sister starts with the dark stairs leading from the sisters’ room to the bloody murder scene on the main stairs and the movie starts from the beginning when the youngest sister, Lea (Jodhi May), comes to work with her sister, Christine (Joely Richardson), at a house owned by a middle class woman, Madame Danzard (Julie Walters), and her adult daughter, Isabelle Danzard (Sophie Thursfield).
Right away you can get a feel of the work environment. They are standing there in silence as Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) decides if she’s going to officially agree to have the younger one work there. Then she agrees, knowing she is getting two maids for the price of one. It is a tense moment. The effectiveness of Sister My Sister requires viewers to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. If you are an emotionally connected person, you will have no choice.
The person who cast Sister My Sister also did a wonderful job. Although these two look nothing like the real sisters, they look very effectively how you would think they should look for this story and their personalities are what make this story work well. There is no way Jodhi May would have been able to pull off the role of Christine and vice versa. So the casting was perfect.
So right off the bat this woman agrees to pay 150 francs a month (not sure if it’s for each woman or for both) and the only time off they had was on Sundays until 4pm. So imagine being paid that little, having to split it with another person, then give it all to your mother who only loves one of you, and the only time you have off is Sundays until 4 pm every week. That is already sounding like a seriously messed up situation. On top of that, they are sharing one small room with a small bed. They happen to be happy about that given they come from worse conditions. *I gathered 150 francs wasn’t much money because when they went for a photograph it cost them 50 francs.
A run down on the plot. The older sister convinces Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) to hire her younger sister and she would get two maids for the price of one. The woman, being the asshole that she is, takes advantage of Christine’s desire to have her sister with her. So the young Lea comes. The sisters are happy for a while. Every now and then Christine gets angry but it was usually over the relationship Lea has with their mother. After the two became sexual, the older sister would get angry because she thought her sister would leave her. Isabelle Danzard (Sophie Thursfield) tried to get Lea’s attention a few times. This was causing some problems between Lea and Christine but then they would have sex and all would be well. Then Madame Danzard started becoming more and more hateful towards the sisters and began to really make their lives hell. The sisters also began to retreat more and more into their own world and their relationship. Their doing so wasn’t entirely because they just wanted to get it on or be crazy, it was because they wanted to be free of the conditions of their lives. They wanted to be able to go away from their environment and live their lives together as they saw fit. These were two sisters trapped in a set position in life they were not happy with. So they’d been trying to save their money so they could leave. The climax of the movie was when not only did the iron short out, causing an already stressed Lea to burn the daughter’s silk blouse, but they knew they didn’t have enough money to leave. So what lead up to the murders in my opinion were two women who felt optionless in a situation that would have been extremely stressful to anyone.
From the start, the younger Lea (Jodhi May) just seems … young. She doesn’t come across as being of lesser intelligence and in Sister My Sister she is the one who really initiates the sexual relationship. The older sister, Christine (Joely Richardson) seems more mature and she seems more structured and less carefree.
I must also point out that the mother in Sister My Sister is down right sadistic and the daughter, Isabelle Danzard (Sophie Thursfield), is actually worse off than the two sisters. She was literally a captive living with her mother. One would not have been shocked if she’d hung herself in the basement.
For instance, Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) seemed to constantly make it clear that her daughter, Isabelle Danzard (Sophie Thursfield) was trapped there and she may as well do things that took forever to complete, i.e. the beadwork. Then she got her daughter’s hopes up by saying they would take a trip to Paris. She waited until her daughter was smiling and excited, then she started breaking her back down slowly until she announced they would forgo going to Paris altogether. It’s kinda like the mother in the movie Sybil who asked a young Sybil if she wanted a cookie then kicked her down when she reached for it. When Madame Danzard was listening to some upbeat music and dancing around the living room, she deliberately put on some funeral music and stopped dancing when her daughter came into the room. It was as if she wanted her daughter to be in an unpleasant environment. In the same scene, when the daughter enjoyed a chocolate from a dish on the table, her mother came and put the dish away so she couldn’t have any more.
Sister My Sister shows some different things that can happen in anyone’s life. For instance, the older sister, Christine, can’t stand her mother and for good reason. There are many instances where a parent will favor one child over the other. This was the case with Christine. The other downside to this scenario is that you will have siblings who care very much about each other but have two very different relationships going on with the parent. If you are the loved one, how do you cope with loving your mother who loves you and not the sister that you love so much? And if you are not the loved one, how to do you cope with loving you sister who is loved by your mother who doesn’t love you? The unloved one has some issues with loyalty. So when Christine sees that Lea still has a blanket her mother made for her, she gets angry. I don’t think this is some crazy schizophrenic reaction as some would like to think, this is the effects of the relationship dynamics at play between these characters. In addition, Christine seems to have suffered other major disappointments when trying to get close to other people. She tried to get close to a nun she idolized at the convent and the nun pushed her away and wouldn’t even talk to her. That hurt her a great deal as well and she carried that around with her.
One thing that keeps jumping out in Sister My Sister is the tremendous amount of stress these maids worked under. We aren’t talking about a time period where you could give your employer your ass to kiss and just go find another job. This was a time period of small towns and word of mouth and real references needed to get good jobs. This was a time period of real ass poverty. There weren’t any McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts trash bins you could rummage through for food if you were down and out. So you could see the extreme nervousness when the younger sister, Lea, started working there. The Madame Danzard went around checking everything with a white glove. Hell, I’ve quit jobs over less stress than I can imagine they experienced as maids during that time.
The classism in Sister My Sister was also overwhelming. The mother and daughter joked about the lowly state of the sisters. They made nasty comments when the sisters came home from church as if they weren’t worthy of going. The mother wouldn’t even move her feet when she made the younger sister pick up tiny beads from the carpet. Also, classism and the inherent issues accompanying servitude, both sides had valid reasons for a little paranoia. For the middle class ladies, they experienced maids who were not trustworthy or who would gossip. For Christine, she’d worked in homes where she was in constant fear. She liked where she was currently working because she knew exactly what Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) expected and she knew on some level, because Madame Danzard checked everything she did, there would be no surprises. In addition, both sides never really spoke to each other so you can imagine the incorrect assumptions either side could come up with when they don’t know or communicate with each other.
There is also a point when you can see Christine doesn’t like to see her sister laboring. It was like she wanted something better for her sister. You can see this when they are on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor, and you can see her get angry when she sees her sister being made to pick up the tiny beads. Lea was all the Christine had. One has to consider that as well. All other attempts to make connections with other people failed for Christine. The only person she was close to was Lea. Lea did have her mother and Christine so it was a different dynamic.
I remember being completely amazed by the performance of these women at the end of this film. You could clearly see Christine trying very hard to hold things together. She did seem to really try to smooth the problem over. Madame Danzard was on the stairs breaking her down. I watched this scene and I thought it was a perfect example of stripping someone of their dignity. Madame Danzard had been doing so up to that point but the encounter at the end was a full assault.
It was never proven that the Papin sisters ever had a sexual relationship and they denied having one back then. There is also a lot of psycho-bullshit aimed at “explaining” their behavior. I don’t mean trying to understand what kind of stressors would drive them to do what they did, but there were labels and assumptions made that really don’t apply to them. One site claimed the older sister would have been labeled as paranoid schizophrenic today, however there is nothing about her behavior that would warrant such a label or that the sisters suffered from shared paranoid disorder. You can’t just label someone with a disorder when they have a valid reason for being paranoid. It’s a natural phenomenon. There was also no indication that they didn’t trust the whole outside world, just that they didn’t trust who they were working for eventually and they had valid reason for that. Both sides trusted each other at the start of the film but by the end, their lack of communication and the their division by class caused both sides to be begin to behave differently and become paranoid.
Close to the end of Sister My Sister, Madame Danzard said Christine doesn’t speak and walks by her as if she’s not even there. Her daughter replies that she’s always been that way. Later Christine says Madame Danzard doesn’t speak to them anymore. Lea replies, she never has.