by Walter Chaw
MURDEROUS MAIDS (2000)
Les Blessures assassines
starring Sylvie Testud, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Isabelle Renauld, Dominique Labourier
screenplay by Jean-Pierre Denis & Michèle Pétin, based on the novel L'affaire Papin by Paulette Houdyer
directed by Jean-Pierre Denis
Heavenly Creatures by way of Henry James, Jean-Pierre Denis's Murderous Maids--based on the true story of two sisters who, in 1933, murdered and mutilated the bodies of their employers in a small French town--is haunting and uncompromising. Denis proposes that taciturn Christine (Sylvie Testud) and open, elfin Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier) were engaged in an incestuous relationship; that this relationship was founded on the basis of a deep resentment of a mother (Isabelle Renauld) who hired them out as housemaids and collected their salaries to fund her "love of life"; and that this relationship--arrested sexuality, repressed beneath a veneer of unbearable religiosity (a third sister, supposedly raped by a long-absent father, joins a convent) and the humiliations of the master/servant dynamic--eventually imploded into an orgy of bloodlust and madness. Denis's unwillingness to sensationalize (let alone explain) first incest and then murder results in a certain harshness that magnifies every bourgeoisie slight against the long-suffering proletariat into a potentially triggering event, yet also prevents very much in the way of suture with either the sisters or their eventual victims. The bloodletting made as sterile as the eroticism in an affectively airless chamber piece, Murderous Maids falls short of Claude Chabrol's brilliant La Cérémonie and Nancy Meckler's underseen Sister, My Sister, in that the same reserve that allows its actresses to shine (Testud, in particular) inhibits very much in the way of actual involvement or tension beyond a kind of clinical interest. Still, the weight of the piece, the unerring professionalism of the chilly production, and the fascination embedded in the lurid topic prove recommendation enough.
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (2002)
directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen
A slippery, clever, kinetic documentary narrated by the subject himself, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's The Kid Stays in the Picture is legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans on Robert Evans, spinning yarns so tall and thick that it comes as some shock when the filmmakers produce archival evidence supporting the man's extravagant claims. Cutting their teeth on a very fine documentary on aspiring boxers (On the Ropes), Burstein and Morgen's choice of Evans's deliriously fun autobiography (and auto-recited audiobook) as the subject of their next feature is not nearly so discursive as it might first appear. Evans is as pugnacious a producer as Hollywood has ever seen, presiding during his tenure over such contentious and risky projects as The Godfather, Chinatown, and Marathon Man against the potential folding of Paramount, the loud objections of the clearly-insane Francis Ford Coppola, and the folding of a high-profile marriage to the perversely overrated Ali MacGraw. The documentary is a cunning mélange of film clips and still photos (digitized and stereoscoped), edited together to match Evans's hipster cadence. Predictably light on some of the details of the more glaring blemishes in the wunderkind's enviably blessed existence (including the infamous Cotton Club murder and all of the 1990s), The Kid Stays in the Picture is a tongue-in-cheek auto-examination that isn't so much masturbation as sly gamesmanship. Evans knows he's one lucky bastard and the film is a celebration of his moxie, a documentary history of chutzpah presented in the language of oily success by a beast who knows the value of a good story told well.