May 17, 2014
For whatever reason, the French have always had a deep and undying fetishism for criminals, with sadomasochist sodomite philosopher Michel Foucault, who was himself an undetected criminal of sorts (he intentionally infected other men with AIDS without their knowledge), once describing the crimes of 19th century poet/murderer Pierre François Lacenaire (who was depicted in Marcel Carné’s 1945 classic Les enfants du paradis aka Children of Paradise and was later portrayed as the eponymous subject of Francis Girod’s 1990 biopic Lacenaire aka The Elegant Criminal) as a figure who was responsible for giving birth to a new kind of lionized outlaw (as opposed to the traditional ‘folk hero’). In describing the particular archetypical spirits of different European races, German philosopher Oswald Spengler would describe the English as Vikings, the Germans as Knights, and the French as Anarchists, remarking regarding Frogland, “The classical site of Western European revolutions is France. The resounding of momentous phrases, streams of blood in the streets, la sainte guillotine, terrifying nights of conflagration, heroic death at the barricades, orgies of the crazed masses—all these things point up the sadistic mentality of this race.” Indeed, as the country that gave birth to the Marquis de Sade and Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, the French put the Krauts and Brits to shame in terms of aesthetic sadism, so it should be no surprise that many artists, writers, and intellectuals in France became obsessed with two murderous maid sisters, Christine and Léa Papin, who became outlaw heroes of sorts after they brutally killed their employer's wife and daughter in Le Mans, France, on 2 February 1933. Indeed, commie surrealists, filmmakers, philosophers, and literary figures saw the Papin bitches as proto-communist revolutionaries of sorts who were the spiritual mothers a of future revolution, with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, Jean Genet, Claude Chabrol, and even Jean Cocteau, among countless others, paying tribute to the homicidal maidservants in one form or another. One of the most famous works based on the Papin girls is the Genet play The Maids (1947) aka Les Bonnes, with the novelist’s Greek friend Nikos Papataki—a nightclub owner turned filmmaker who funded and produced the literary outlaw's first (and ultimately last) film A Song of Love (1950) aka Un chant d'amour—also more or less adapting the story for his first feature Les abysses (1963) aka The Depths. A shockingly enthralling work about two hysterical homicidal maids of the rather misleadingly cutesy, if not equally crazed, sort who brutally kill their two female masters, Les abysses enjoyed ‘Succès de scandale’ upon its release and even almost caused a full-blown riot at the Cannes Film Festival. A naked melodrama with hyper histrionic acting, Papataki's film is like a modernist take on Greek tragedy meets Fassbinder on steroids, albeit with a lesbian as opposed to homoerotic subtext. Penned by now-forgotten French avant-garde playwright Jean Vauthier in what would be his sole film credit, Les abysses is a scornful little film where virtually none of the characters have any redeeming qualities that was clearly designed to strike fear and terror into the hearts of the French bourgeois, so it should be no surprise that spiteful little commie frog Jean-Paul Sartre paid the work a grand compliment with the following words, “The cinema has given us its foremost tragedy.” Staring two real-life sisters in the lead roles as lethal ladies whose cuteness is only transcended by their lust for criminality, Les abysses is a thrilling, chilling, and subtlety titillating sister act from prole purgatory where the poor kill the rich and are more or less treated as revolutionary saints as a result.
Michelle (Francine Bergé, who starred in Georges Franju’s Judex (1963) and Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976)) and her little sister Marie-Louise (Colette Bergé, who later had a small role in The Day of the Jackal (1973)) are maidservants yet they have not been paid for their work in about 3 years and the family that they work for are away and have left them to their own devices, so they have decided to bring senseless destruction to the home. The two sisters are afraid that their bosses are planning to their sell chateau, which will leave them homeless, so they take it upon themselves to make the rather quaint home unsellable by ripping the wallpaper off the wall, putting holes in other walls, making a variety of extravagant messes, hacking up chairs with knives, and putting holes in wine barrels, thus flooding the basement and wasting one million Francs worth of wine. When their bosses end up showing up early and unexpectedly, the girls accuse them of doing it on purpose so as to sneak up on them while committing unholy acts of destruction (indeed, despite their psychopathic behavior, these girls are guilty). Monsieur Andre Lapeyre (Paul Bonifas of Fanny (1961) and Charade) and his second wife Madame Lapeyre (Colette Régis of Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938) arrive with the former’s adult daughter Elizabeth (Pascale de Boysson of Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979))—a Bressonian figure of sorts that is arguably the most complex character in the entire film—who has separated from her husband Philippe (Jean-Louis Le Goff). Indeed, as her flagrant flirtatious behavior with Marie-Louise demonstrates, Elizabeth is a closest lesbian who has no interest in men. When the Lapeyre family arrives, the two maidservants demand their back wages and food, but they have no money to give, hence why they are planning to sell their chateau in the first place. Due to her undying love for Marie-Louise and her delusional liberal mentality, Elizabeth even attempts to beg her father and stepmother not to sell their house, but her efforts are in vain.
After Madame Lapeyre tells the girls to clean the house, they do the opposite by wrecking it and throwing fish at Elizabeth, with Michelle even shouting that she hates her whilst spitefully tossing the slimy aquatic creatures at her boss' mostly kindhearted daughter. Meanwhile, the Madame attempts to convince her husband to fire the girls, but he can't because, as he remarks, “How can I fire them if I can’t pay them? We owe them 3 years’ wage,” though he does decide to plot his revenge against the maids after realizing that they have ruined all of his wine, which the prospective buyers of his home house were planning to pay him good money for. After little Marie-Louise collapses while doing ‘work’ (aka wrecking the house), her sister Michelle accuses Madame Lapeyre of being inhuman and trying to kill her sister. Eventually, Michelle makes the following threat to her bosses (though she only says it to herself): “This is the last straw. To you, I’m just a maid. I wasn’t born to empty garbage cans…I don’t enjoy soiling myself in your filth…stepping in your muck…or emptying Monsieur’s spittoon. You cannot forget we are maids…but…you’ll see, strange things will happen.” Indeed, being the elder of the two sisters, Michelle is the dominant one and does not think twice about smacking her little sis across the face for the most minor of infractions (i.e. giggling). When Madame Lapeyre once again attempts to get the girls to do some work, Michelle refuses and makes the rather absurd claim, “This is our property! We are no longer your servants. Bitch! You Bitch! Get out of here! You owe us 3 years’ pay […] We are here legally as co-owners.” Of course, as a bitter old bitch, Madame Lapeyre makes for the perfect nemesis to Michelle, retorting to the malefic girl with the rather snide remark, “You’re trying to ruin us. You damaged everything on purpose…You unplugged the wine. You cost us a million francs...You depraved animals. I don’t dare say what I really think.” Desperate to get the maids off her back, the Madame attempts to reconcile with the girls and offers them enough money to buy a ‘chicken home’ on the Lapeyre estate, but the girls are greedy and they want everything, so Michelle rejects the offer. When Elizabeth flirts with Marie-Louise at the dinner by caressing and complimenting her “artistic fingers,” Michelle becomes severely agitated, so to appease her sister she spits her food in the Lapeyre girl's pretty little face. After dinner, Marie-Louise and Michelle stalk Elizabeth outside and the former accuses her of being a lesbian, hatefully stating, “It’s the Holy communion you’re after…That’s what you want, you pervert!” After calling her a dyke, Michelle holds Elizabeth and forces Marie-Louise to violently beat her, which she does with gusto. Despite the emotional and physical brutality she has just received at the hands of the two maids, Elizabeth attempts to kill Michelle with kindness by remarking, “Michelle, I think you’re only wicked on the surface” and offering to split the house with the two girls if her father dies (since Madame Lapeyre is not her real mother and she signed a prenuptial agreement, Liz inherits everything if her father dies) because, as she sentimentality states, “That way we could always be together.” Of course, their relationship is not even going to last the night, as Michelle has murder on her mind.
When Madame Lapeyre discovers her stepdaughter Elizabeth's plan to split her inheritance with the two maids, she accuses the trio of plotting her hubby’s death. After hearing of his daughter’s dubious plans, Monsieur Lepeyre decides to smack his daughter Liz around. Towards the end of the film, Elizabeth's ex-husband Philippe, who is a swarthy fat cuckold of a candy ass toad, arrives with the couple that plan to buy the Lapeyre home and Michelle and Marie-Louise immediately begin attempting to sabotage the sale, telling the prospective buyers the home is infested with termites and that the owners are evil slave-drivers. When the two ‘unconventionally sexy’ sisters decide to put on their maid outfits for the first time in the film, the buyer’s laugh their asses off in a rather cruel fashion, as the girls have expressions on their faces that scream of meekness and abject degradation. While the girls attempt to serve the hosts, they fail miserably as they cannot even successfully fill up cups with coffee without spilling it on everyone. The last straw for Michelle comes when Elizabeth touches Marie-Louise’s skirt, as the crazed cutie does not take too kindly to girls touching her little sister’s leg, so she attacks the Lapeyre girl from behind like a rabid monkey, cannibalistically bites her on the throat, and begins stabbing her repeatedly in the gut with a butcher knife in a scene that, in terms of pure visceral violence, puts the iconic shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to shame. While Michelle savagely slaughters Elizabeth, perennial follower Marie-Louise picks up an iron and brutally beats Madame Lapeyre to death with it. After finding the two women’s corpses, the prospective buyers and Elizabeth’s ex-husband Philippe accuse Monsieur Lapeyre of causing the deaths. While Philippe hatefully berates Monsieur Andre by calling him a vile and weak coward, the buyer says to him, “Your stupidity caused their deaths. You are the real murderer. You poor fool.” In the final scene of the film, Monsieur Lapeyre, Philippe, and the buyer and his wife stare directly into the camera rather intently. The film closes with the following epilogue: “In late fall, 1933, in the town of Le Mans, France, the Sisters Papin were tried in the court of Assises. They were adjudged guilty of murder and sentenced…The elder sister to death, the younger to imprisonment. Yes…The record shows that the court itself raised the question: “Who Is Truly Guilty Here?””
While Les abysses attempts to portray the two murderesses as victims who were provoked to kill due to the exploitation they experienced at the hands of their employer, the film ultimately made me go so far as to reconsider slavery, as the maidservants where so innately idiotic, dangerously compulsive, and insanely irrational in their nonsensical and ultimately nihilistic actions that there is no way that they could run their own lives and are thus better off if someone else, even if a family of banal boobeoise bastards does it for them. Indeed, the film also unwittingly demonstrates that slaves are typically more brutal, needlessly cruel, and callous than their masters and it is not simply due to their deep-seated desire for revenge, but also because they have no experience with power and thus abuse it, hence why they go all the way and kill their bosses in a fit of homicidal fury. While I cannot say that I have studied the crimes of Christine and Léa Papin closely, judging solely by Les abysses, I think it is nothing short of patently pathetic that anyone would consider the two sisters heroes, be they working-class or otherwise. The ‘Les abysses’ of the film is in the Nietzschean sense and is taken from a reference made by Elizabeth Lapeyre to Michelle, with the following obscenely overused 146 aphorism from the German philosopher’s work Beyond Good and Evil (1886) more or less describing the two murderesses’ predicament: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Undoubtedly, Les abysses has had some influence on French culture, as Joël Séria’s excellent artsploitation flick Don't Deliver Us from Evil (1971) aka Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal—a work very loosely based on the Parker–Hulme murder case (which also inspired Peter Jackson's 1994 film Heavenly Creatures) with lesbian undertones—seems to be a modernist reworking of Papataki’s film. In some ways, Czech auteur Věra Chytilová’s classic Daisies (1966) aka Sedmikrásky—a work about two exceedingly moronic counter-culture-brainwashed chicks that have an affinity for wasting food and destroying other peoples’ homes—seems like a parody of Les abysses, albeit with the two anti-heroines rightfully dying in the end. Of course, Jean Genet’s take on the Papin sisters story would be cinematically adapted by the British director Christopher Miles in 1975 under the title of The Maids in a film starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, but this work seems quite tediously tame when compared to Papataki’s pernicious little psychodrama, though it is certainly worth checking out. Rather startlingly enthralling and morally dubious for a work of its time, Les abysses is a rare piece of ‘revolutionary melodrama’ that goes all way and is rarely plagued by the commie con of moral self-righteousness, as Papataki may have attempted to paint the two deadly dames as victims, but there is also no question that both girls are quite deranged. Predating the May 1968 events in France where a series of Trotskyite student protests sparked the striking of 11,000,000 workers (more than 22% of the total population of France) and almost caused the collapse of French President Charles de Gaulle's government by half a decade, Les abysses ultimately makes the working-class struggle seem a lot more romantic than pedantic pinkos like Jean-Luc Godard would later portray it. Indeed, Les abysses is sort of a wonderfully aberrant missing link between classic French Quality Cinema and the French New Wave and is thus of interest as both a piece of French cinema history and as a heretical study in class relations and fucked female psychology.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 1:36 AM
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