Les Abysses, based on the actual double murder committed in 1933 by the Papin sisters, was assured of a favorable reception among the French avant-garde before the first frame of film began to roll through the camera. French intellectuals share a bizarre fixation for this particular crime; Genet, for example, based his play, The Maids, on it. As a result, Nico Papatakis, the director, may well have become too confident that every scene would have the emotional impact he intended. Unfortunately, they don't.
"This is the true story -- this is how it was," Papatakis claims at the very beginning. Then he tells the story, of how the two lesbian sisters have remained in the employ of a provincial bourgeois family for three years without pay, of how the family cannot fire the maids because they cannot meet the back-wages, and of how the sisters become increasingly disaffected with their de facto slavery and eventually lose their sanity.
The family finally sells the house, which the maids have started to tear apart. By this time, however, the girls have become hopeless psychopaths and proceed to murder their mistress and her lesbian daughter. The man who has just bought the house accuses the father of causing the tragic result. I, for one, can't figure out how he, as a newcomer on the scene, can make such an accusation. Papatakis presents these events with an absolute minimum of sentimentality; it's just the ugly, brutal story, starkly told, designed to make us shiver.
Some scenes succeed, others dissolve into bathos. The scene in which Michele, the older sister, stabs an ornamented chair with a long pin, effectively foreshadows the knifing scene at the end. When the maids ransack the kitchen, throwing food and smashing plates, they are doing what every girl would love to do and Papatakis achieves his intended portrayal of the normal impulse run wild. Finally, the murder scene, done with brilliant jump-cutting, creates terror before the audience can realize what has happened.
But the numerous confrontation scenes between the mad sisters and their employers get duller and duller. Papatakis has great difficulty in creating bourgeois characters without letting them become absolute fools. When the master or the mistress deliver long homilies on respectability, the audience can only laugh. As a result, the pity and blame are not equally balanced between the family and the sisters, and the emotional conflict inherent in the situation is sacrificed to pure sensationalism. Our sympathies do go out to these characters despite the structure of the film, but we must still leave the theatre with the feeling that we have gained no new insights.
I, for one, am tired of these surface exercises. For those still in the vanguard, Les Abysses may prove fulfilling. For the rest of us, those panderers of romanticism, Goddard and Truffaut, will soon return to the Brattle.