Before you even put the DVD in the player, if you read the blurb
on the back you're informed that Sister My Sister
involves an incestuous relationship between two sisters that leads
to a vicious murder. (Side note: Is incest between two women still
categorised as lesbianism? Or is it simply incestuous and no other
label applies?) Immediately there's this social taboo we need
to address within ourselves. Can we watch a film about two sisters
having sex and still take something, anything else of importance
away from the film? Can we put this aside and recognise that there
is still a dark beauty in showing the humanity behind something
most people see as inherently evil?
I guess the answer to the question depends on the individual.
Much like Lynne Stopkewich's subversive film "Kissed"
which examines the necrophiliac desires of a young girl, or films
that deal with pedophilia from the point of view of the perpetrator
such as "The Woodsman", I believe there are people who
will not be able to divorce themselves from the sexual issues
and will be troubled by this film. That's perfectly fine, it just
has to be said from the outset that this is not the film for you.
Others will view and interpret this subversive sexuality as simply
the pathos the characters carry with them, the state they find
themselves in through circumstance—a plot device, if you
will—with no right or wrong judgement required.
The story begins in France in the 1930's. Christine, a maid for
the strict Madame Danzard, contrives to get her sister Lea hired
as a maid in the same household. Madame Danzard is initially thrilled
with the bargain; she is getting two good maids for the price
of one who both meet her fastidious standards and who don't even
require separate bedrooms. Christine and Lea are just delighted
to be together again. Through a series of flashbacks we learn
that they were both in a convent as young girls (it's not really
explained why, it is also made clear that their mother is alive)
and that they have always had a strong connection to each other.
Lea is young, emotionally dependent and fraught with insecurity,
while Christine maintains a strong big sister presence which conceals
a capacity for jealousy and resentment. With so much emotional
damage and need between the two sisters, their sexual relationship
becomes almost an inevitability; they must become lovers or else
tear each other to shreds (emotionally, or even literally). All
this happens upstairs in the privacy of their shared bedroom.
It is their own world. When they do emerge they are maids, with
little personal identity or anything to even distinguish them
All this is in direct contrast with what is downstairs. Madame
Danzard runs her household by instilling fear in all the inhabitants.
Her frumpy daughter Victoria, while trying to appear belligerent
and rebellious, is as much under the old lady's thumb as the servants,
or perhaps more so since she was born into this repression and
doesn't have a private world upstairs to escape to. Lea especially
is terrified of the old woman and of making mistakes. This terror,
mixed with her already fragile emotional state, keeps the poor
young girl in a constant state of frazzled nerves.
The menace and aura of violence builds gradually within the house,
but always there is that divide between upstairs and downstairs
that maintains a semblance of normality. At first the secret passion
between the two sisters is something they cherish and cling to.
It is an outlet from the rigidity in every other facet of their
lives. But the passion eventually becomes so intense it begins
to sour. While Lea hovers on the edge of mental instability, we
soon realise that Christine has long ago gone over the edge. Her
lesbianism has been long-repressed, it stems back to a crush on
a nun at the convent. Lea, not really knowing what emotional waters
she is playing in, plays sexual games that fuel Christine's possessive
Gradually, Lea and Victoria form a different kind of bond. United
in their horror of their oppressor they share tentative moments
of intimacy; a shared chocolate from the forbidden stash, a moment
where Lea brushes out Victoria's hair. These small (and unfortunately
underdeveloped) beginnings of friendship between the two underlings
of the household provokes immediate retribution. Christine paranoically
demands to know if Lea plans to leave her, to follow Victoria
in the event of her (unlikely) marriage. Madame Danzard resents
any human contact between the upper and lower echelons of society.
The fragile balance of the household begins to unravel, with deadly
It is during this unravelling that the film itself seems to fall
apart. The director has done a wonderful job up until that moment
of keeping the menacing atmosphere at a sustainable level, but
the effort to kick it up a notch exposes some inherent problems
with the script. It is difficult to explain what goes wrong without
going into too much plot detail, but suffice to say I thought
the situations that gave rise to the penultimate act of violence
needed to be better and more deeply explored.
The weak link is in the writing of the daughter. She seems so
inconsequential at the beginning, too inconsequential, like a
piece of furniture. It takes too long for the film to reveal that
really she does play quite a central role in it all, that she
contributes so unwittingly to Christine's loss of control, to
Madame's freakish outbursts. We needed more buildup to Christine's
malicious jealousy. The small flashbacks to her deprived childhood
and the references to the absent mother were more of a distraction
than an explanation. We needed to linger much longer on the pressure
inflicted by Madame Danzard upon her daughter, that smothering
that would make Victoria reach out to Lea, destroying that perfect
distinction between upstairs and downstairs, servant and master,
that kept everything in check. For the film to work all four pieces
of this game must be in play, and while three work perfectly,
the fourth is wasted.
What has to be said is that despite the tricky subject matter,
despite the horror and the downright ugly connections drawn between
lesbianism and mental illness (Christine really is one of the
least flattering lesbian characters ever to appear on screen),
one thing that cannot be faulted in this film is the acting of
the three leads. Joely Richardson (daughter of screen legend Vanessa
Redgrave) is nothing short of astonishing as Christine. To watch
her turn from adoring sister to depraved psychopath and back again
in an instant sucks the breath from your body.
No less riveting was Jodhi May (of Tipping
the Velvet fame) and her portrayal of the emotionally
innocent Lea. May remarked in interviews that Lea was a character
so real to her that when filming ended she found it difficult
to let the role go. Her immersal in the part makes that comment
easy to believe. Richardson and May create a sexual tension between
them that is almost as exciting as it is disturbing.
Julie Walters was note-perfect as Madame Danzard, finding the
exact right level of stern self-righteousness that makes the character
so despicable. Sophie Thursfield was left with the difficult task
of making Victoria relevant and compelling, but she wasn't successful.
She's overshadowed and out-acted by the rest of the cast, and
that was disappointing.
Sister My Sister is a pressure cooker of a movie
with no steam valve, to the point where the audience may even
begin to feel stifled themselves. It is at once sexual drama,
twisted gothic romance and vicious crime story, a piece that relies
purely on characters and character acting to drive the plot to
an inevitable conclusion. (Yep, that's code for "no action
As with all "based on a true story" movies where the
events are known but not the particulars, the point is not what
happens, but how. How could these seemingly normal girls from
a good convent background fall into sexual depravity and be driven
to murder? This film answered most of our questions, but could
have been so much more given the talent involved. As the cliché
goes, a team is only as strong as its weakest link, so the film
is merely pretty good, rather than great.
Got a comment? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org