Sunday, October 14, 2012

Incester: "Sister My Sister" (1995)

Based on a true story, this film has it all- incest, murder, and fine linens. Christine (Joely Richardson) brings her younger sister Lea (Jodhi May) into the Danzard household to work. Christine is the handmaid to Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) and her dowdy teenage daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield).

Menace hangs over the film thanks to an opening credits roll that shows us blood and gore on a staircase, but does not clue us in as to who exactly has been killed. There are certainly plenty of prospective victims among the quartet of actresses.

Christine is a wonderful servant, and the Danzards are pleased with her work. They are even more pleased when Lea comes to work in the house as well, since they get two maids for the price of one. Lea and Christine share a bed in a small room upstairs, and have Sunday mornings and early afternoons off. They spend that time visiting an unseen mother, who dotes on Lea. Lea in turn hands over her half of the wages to Mom every week. Christine hates the woman, and takes that hatred out on her younger sister.

Things seem to be going well, until some sisterly issues surface. Lea is obsessed with Christine, and Christine is obsessed with Lea. They grew up in a convent, explaining a certain repression on the ladies' part that takes their relationship from sisterhood to sexual incest.

Meanwhile, Madame is desperate to marry off poor Isabelle, constantly braying and nagging her. She also notices the sisters' drop in household chore quality, and suspects the two are doing more in their room on Sundays besides praying. As Lea and Isabelle begin a semi-flirtatious, innocent relationship, Christine (who thinks of herself as hideous looking) goes off the deep end. The Danzards are so displeased with the sisters, they discuss the ladies' faults in front of them as if they were not there. The sisters promise to be together always, and the brutal finale sees where the opening gore came from.

Meckler, filming a screenplay by Wendy Kesselman, has a wonderful attention to detail without crossing over into artsy territory. Following the drips of a water faucet as if it was Chinese water torture, the gory opening shot, the dark interiors of the house, she captures it all perfectly. Kesselman gives us totally mundane household chores to watch, but shows us what happens if the servants get even the tiniest detail wrong. The menace hanging over the film is effective, although a snip here and there might have moved the pace a bit. It is slow but fascinating in the same respect as "Remains of the Day."

The cast is incredible. Walters is not a mean mistress of the house, she just demands what 1932 French small town society expects from her. Thursfield is also great as a gawky teen, sneaking chocolates and fascinated with the servant sisters. Richardson is excellent, not going obsessive insane immediately, but easing her character, and the audience, into it. May is fantastic as the seemingly helpless Lea, who relies too much on her sister without coming off as shrill or annoying.

The film makers also handle the disturbing sexual scenes well. There are no backlit love scenes played to orchestral strings. The sisters know what they are doing is wrong, but they cannot seem to help themselves. I do not mean this from a sexual point of view, but from an obsessive one. They seem just as awkward with each other as the audience is with their acts.

"Sister My Sister" is an underrated film that deserves more viewers than its softcore-looking video box cover is trying to get. It is disturbing, suspenseful, and not easy to forget. (* * * *) out of five stars.