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Review of
Sister my Sister

originally published in the
1996 Adefus Literary Magazine

In the recent British film, Sister my Sister, Wendy Kesselman brings to life the story of the Papin sisters and the crime that would make them famous. The film stars Jodhi May and Joely Richardson as Christine and Léa, two maids (who are also sisters) who work for Madame Danzard, played by Julie Walters, and her daughter Isabelle in a French provincial town.

The film explores a path already laid by the New Zealand film Heavenly Creatures- the story of two women bound together by love whose fear of separation drives them to murder. However, Sister my Sister adds a new dimension to this scenario because the two women are in fact sisters. Wendy Kesselman's screenplay is in fact an adaptation of her 1981 play, My Sister in this House. The details of the story are well researched and mostly correct. There are, however, several striking differences between the true story of the crime of the Papin sisters and the story as presented in the film. The most obvious difference is that in the film the male figures are absent. Madame explains that her husband is dead, though in real-life Monsieur Lancelin was the person who raised the alarm about his wife and daughter and was present when they were found murdered. Kesselman has chosen to emphasise the relations of power and attraction between the women in the story and that may be the reason for the absence of male characters (except as voice-overs) in the film. The film is not an exact portrayal of the life of the sisters but instead a melange of details woven into a single narrative representing the years that the Papins worked as maids and in particular the seven years they spent in the Lancelin household.

Kesselman does not hide the gruesome details of the crime (beware, the murder scene is not for the faint-hearted) but she does try to show the motives behind the crime. During the trial of Christine and Léa in 1933, the prosecution tried to make the women confess to an incestuous lesbian relationship that they were supposedly engaged in. Neither of the sisters ever admitted to such a relationship but the fact that they were found together in bed (dressed in negligées and not naked as suggested in the film) and spent all of their free time together locked in their attic bedroom has led many people, including Simone de Beauvoir, to speculate on the nature of their relationship. In the film, Kesselman leaves no doubt as to the nature of the relations between Christine and Léa. The sexual tension between the two sisters is obvious from the beginning of the film and the consequences of their sexual and doubly forbidden relationship lead to the murder.

Julie Walters is wonderful as the middle-aged petite bourgoise employer. She demands and receives perfection from her two maids whom she treats almost as objects. In one scene, Mme Danzard has invited two friends to tea in order to show off her two maids and she talks about them as if they were not in the room. At first relations between the maids and Mme are good, Léa and Christine work hard and Mme is pleased at her find of "two for the price of one, and they didn't even want separate rooms!" but as the film progresses the balance in the household begins to slip: the maids begin to resent Mme and she in turn begins to find fault with their work and even abuses them. The build-up to the murder scene is believable and even sympathetic to the plight of the sisters. Kesselman's explanation of the motives for the crime (remembering that the Papin sisters never gave a coherent explanation) is based on the conclusion of Paulette Houdyer in her book Le diable dans la peau (1966) in which she surmises that Mme and her daughter surprised the two sisters in bed and when she threatened to have them run out of town they became enraged and attacked them.

All in all, Sister my Sister is a well-made film with some great acting and cinematography. Kesselman brings out in her screenplay the mystery and misery of the story of Christine and Léa Papin, a story that has inspired artists for over fifty years.

All material
Andrea Curr 2000

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