sister my sister

2004

Directed: Nancy Meckler
Written: Wendy Kesselman

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 as people.

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 love.

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 results.

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 sequences".)

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 nancyamazon@gmail.com