Monday, February 16, 2015

The Maids (1974)

          Another high-minded release from the American Film Theatre, this dark drama was adapted from a successful stage production with the cast and director intact, though the underlying material dates back to 1947, when French scribe Jean Genet premiered his stylized story about a notorious real-life murder that took place in 1930s France. The actual incident involved two sisters who killed the woman who employed them as maids. In Genet’s interpretation, Claire and Solange perceive their mistress as some sort of tormentor, so whenever the mistress is not in residence, the sisters act out elaborate murder fantasies, sometimes with Claire playing the overbearing employer and sometimes with Solange assuming the role. The idea, of course, is that the sisters are so twisted that the mistress (named only “Madame”) has become an unwitting target of their homicidal fixation. (Other cinematic takes on the real-life case have gone even further in terms of imagining pathologies for the murderesses; the elegant 1994 British film Sister My Sister adds the X factor of an incestuous sexual relationship.)
          The Maids stars the celebrated Glenda Jackson and the versatile Susannah York, with Vivien Merchant rounding out the principal cast as Madame. While Jackson unquestionably outguns York in terms of dramatic intensity and verbal dexterity, both leading actresses give strong performances that are filled with acid and angst. Better still, director Christopher Miles wraps the whole production in an aura of menace and paranoia. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s camera lingers close on the actresses while their characters describe ways of killing their perceived enemy, so the best parts of the picture have the malice and tension of a Hitchcock picture. Composer Laurie Johnson’s jittery score helps amplify the anxiety. The Maids also pushes boundaries of taste with scenes of Jackson whipping York and of Jackson spitting into the camera. The synthesis of Jackson’s fearlessness and the boldness of the film itself is The Maids’ biggest asset.
          Nonetheless, the unrelentingly artificial quality of the text, which manifests in baroque characterizations and hyper-articulate dialogue, renders the whole endeavor quite chilly and uninvolving. Especially once the storyline enters its weird final act, when director Miles cuts most tethers connecting the picture to recognizable reality, The Maids becomes an arty treatise on insanity rather than a compelling human drama. That said, the movie is made with unmistakable craftsmanship, the real-life story remains morbidly intriguing, and the performances, especially Jackson’s, are relentless.

The Maids: FUNKY

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