sister my sister
Directed: Nancy Meckler
Written: Wendy Kesselman
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. 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, 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, 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, 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 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 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. 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 distinguish them as people.
Madame Danzard runs her household by instilling fear in 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 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 beginnings of friendship provoke 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 unraveling that the film itself seems to fall apart. The director has done a wonderful job up until then of keeping the menace 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.
Despite the tricky subject matter, 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. Joely Richardson 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. 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 as successful.
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".)