Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
Original Title: Les Abysses
France, 1963. Lenox Films. Screenplay by Jean Vauthier. Cinematography by Jean-Michel Boussaguet. Produced by Nikos Papatakis. Music by Pierre Barbaud. Film Editing by Edwige Bernard, Denise de Casabianca, Pascale Laverrière.
Politically controversial director Nico Papatakis made his feature debut with this provocative look at the 1933 Papin murder case, whose infamy continues to be explored in remounts of Jean Genet’s The Maids and films like Sister My Sister. In this version, real-life sisters Francine and Colette Bergé are the sisters who work as maids in a crumbling aristocratic estate, whose owners haven’t paid them in three years. Alone in the house with their masters on vacation, dressed in soiled clothing, they’ve whipped themselves up into a frenzied emotional state over their existence in this crumbling manor, then are further provoked when the elderly couple and their grown-up daughter return home early and expect to be fed. This leads to a series of scenes of rebellion from the two young woman who have decided that they have had enough, particularly when an earlier promise of giving them a piece of the property as compensation in place of payment no longer holds water, because now the family want to sell the land off without honoring their commitment. It’s an unpleasant story given impressively harsh treatment by Papatakis, who encourages uncompromising performances from the leads as they spew their dialogue and contort their bodies in ways that feel like good experimental theatre transferred successfully to film. The cinematography also emphasizes a hard visual landscape, the few locations that the story takes place in (it all unfolds over a period of a few hours) are lit by bare lightbulbs that contribute no beauty to the proceedings, but the ugliness is as compelling as the dramatic content. After being entered into the 1963 Cannes Film festival, the film was denied a screening for its upsetting nature (and, possibly, reports that Papatakis was making allegorical references to the Algerian War), and while it’s hard to believe that it would be banned today, the film does still pack a mean punch.
Cannes Film Festival: In Competition