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Servant problem?
Murderous Maids and more at the Coolidge

It was 1933, too early for Hitchcockís warning about the danger at the dark top of the stairs, when, in the French town of Le Mans, a bourgeois housewife, Mme. Lincelan, and her adult daughter, Geneviève, ascended to the attic quarters to check on what their servants, the Papin sisters, were up to. What did they see that day? Something sordid, carnal, unimaginable? Whatever, the invaded siblings, Christine and Léa, turned on their masters like frenzied Furies, hacking them to death and mutilating the beet-red bodies.

Just your typical lesbian incest murder mystery with Marxist/Freudian overtones? Murderous Maids, which opens this Friday, July 12, at the Coolidge Corner, is the latest in an exhaustive run of takes on this infamous case, from Jean Genetís ritual drama The Maids through impassioned essays by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and on to Margaret Atwoodís novel Captive and many movie variants. One film is based directly on the story, Nancy Mecklerís Sister My Sister (1994). Three others with symbiotic two-girl psycho killers seem to have been inspired by it: Rafal Zielinskiís Fun (1993), Peter Jacksonís Heavenly Creatures (1994), and Claude Chabrolís La cérémonie (1995).

Alone among the film dramas, Jean-Pierre Denisís Murderous Maids (Les blessures assassines in the original French) swears an allegiance to the actual facts of the case. Itís based on Líaffaire Papin, Paulette Houdyerís 1996 book reconstructing the crime, and it takes us back to the unhappy have-not childhood of the Papin children, where we see Christine (Sylvie Testud) and Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier) farmed out into servitude by their indifferent mother and going from one stultifying position to another. Employment by the ill-fated Lincelan family is their last dead-end job.

Murderous Maids leaps ahead of other versions of the story with the explicitness of its sex, which is bold and hot, the two bare-breasted sisters lying one on top of the other in a hellpit of a tiny room thatís adorned only with a cross on the wall. "Jesus, you forgave Mary Magdalene," Christine prays in church. Despite being made in the most skillful, proficient way, Murderous Maids is difficult to like: the cold story is told coolly, and Christine is hard, humorless, pathological, a walking cherry bomb.

DONíT ASK, DONíT TELL, which is also opening this Friday at the Coolidge, is a good-natured cheapie movie for which Tex Hauser and Doug Miles took a godawful 1954 sci-fi flick, Killers from Space, deconstructed it with inserted scenes, and supplied silly new dialogue. In the original, pilot Peter Graves is brought back from the grave by Russkie-like space aliens who program him to steal US atomic secrets. This time around, the spaceniks transform the macho military man into a "homo," and the refurbished soundtrack is littered with gags about Barney Frank and "Babs" Streisand.

Fortunately, the filmmakers retain on screen the original invaders from the planet Astron Delta. You canít get campier than these guys with ping-pong balls cut in two for eyeballs. And they keep the 1950s FBI men, who are now led by an out-of-the-closet, high-drag J. Edgar Hoover. All in all, Donít Ask is very Mad magazine, sometimes a laugh, sometimes a dud, with the best jokes time and again the filthiest ones.

THE BIG DIG, which is at the Coolidge tonight, July 11, at 8 p.m., is about another abortive excavation, a mythical one. Tel Avivís busiest intersection gets torn up and tunneled through in this 1969 Israeli comedy thatís been beautifully restored by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. Oy, what has happened to Allenby Street? Bomba Tzur plays the patient who after escaping from a mental institution and locating a pneumatic drill digs hole after hole in the pavement, causing traffic havoc. The police, assuming the lunatic is following municipal orders, helps him drill away. Newspapers editorialize, "Every citizen must be thankful for the renovations of the city"; the mayor and the head of the road-maintenance department (theyíre from opposing parties) fight to take credit. Trucks and bulldozers join in; the digging moves perilously toward the sea, and Tel Aviv threatens to turn into Venice. This broad and mostly funny Israeli satire comes from writer/director Ephraim Kishon, who looks to have been influenced by the Marx Brothers and Blake Edwardsís Inspector Clouseau movies.

SOMETHING NICE. Jackie Brown star Robert Forster will speaking at a charity showing of his 2001 film, Diamond Men, at Worcesterís independent arthouse, the Bijou Cinema, this Monday, July 15, at 7 p.m.

Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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