Sister My Sister is based on a celebrated criminal case from provincial France in the early '30s--the same case on which Genet based his play The Maids. Scripted by Wendy Kesselman, adapting her play My Sister in This House, and directed by Nancy Meckler, the movie has plenty of lurid juice--lesbian incest, pathological jealousy, Catholic guilt, class consciousness, the tyranny of mothers and employers and a gory climax to boot.
Meckler and Kesselman unfold their drama in a world that is almost exclusively distaff. A few male voices are heard, briefly, throughout the film, but the faces to which they belong are not shown.
Lea (Jodhi May) comes to work with her sister Christine (Joely Richardson) as maid to a bourgeois widow (Julie Walters) and her teenage daughter (Sophie Thursfield). Both are former convent girls; their housework is immaculate. At first, Madame is delighted with them, or rather, with herself for having them.
What Madame doesn't see is that the sisters are the centers of each other's emotional lives--they share a garret and a bed, and an enclosed, crazily possessive relationship with each other that extends to their sexuality. As Madame's petty domestic tyrannies grow increasingly intolerable--as they would to anyone, sane or not--and as Lea proves receptive to the interest of Madame's daughter, Christine's unstable protective instinct toward Lea grows ever closer to lethal violence.
Peter Jackson's powerhouse Heavenly Creatures was also about an intense, sexually tinged friendship between two young women that turns outward violently when frustrated. If Meckler's film pales beside Jackson's, it's still fierce and forceful and scary--made in a taut, economical style, with fine acting and a baleful sort of eroticism.
Where it's unsatisfying is in the thin interpretation that Meckler and Kesselman give to their maids as characters. Jackson had respect enough for his killer schoolgirls to let them be monsters, and we were therefore able to see, all for ourselves, the other level at which, like most movie monsters, they were also victims. Meckler and Kesselman are too eager to show how their dangerous sister maids are victims, so that we, conversely, feel the need to note that they are also monsters--or Christine is, at any rate.
Along these same lines, while all of the acting is strong, and Richardson and May have a perversely potent sexual chemistry, the performance that dominates Sister My Sister is that of Walters, as the movie's one unapologetic monster. Madame's flute-voiced, deceptive cheeriness masks the most savage kind of emotional sadism. It may be the best film role Walters has ever had, and she makes it into a grand and chilling study in semicomic villainy.