The Maids Review

In an elegant Paris residence in the Place Vendôme, two maids, sisters Solange (Glenda Jackson) and Claire (Susannah York) plot the murder of their mistress (Vivien Merchant), acting out the shame of their degradation at her hands in an elaborate ceremony. Contriving to have the master of the house arrested on a charge of theft, they hope to make the mistress’s death look like a suicide in despair at the disgrace.

Based on the real-life crime in the 1930s, the subject of the Papin sisters has been adapted to stage and film a number of times, most recently as The Murderous Maids (Les Blessures Assassines, 2000), Genet’s 1947 play retains little documentary fact and instead revels in the typically Genet themes of subversion and inversion of roles. Part of the maids’ ceremony consists of them play-acting an elaborately rehearsed drama where they give expression to their self-loathing of their position and that of their mistress. Genet also inverts the language, the maids delivering fawning soliloquies of hatred and disgust, an encomium in praise of vulgarity, a poeticizing of filth – “I disgust you, because I know you disgust me”, purrs Solange to her sister dressed-up in the mistress’s finery, to which Claire responds with loving affection, “You are my bad smell” – each of them revelling in the humiliation that they heap upon each other. Likewise, the mistress instead of being devastated at her husband’s arrest as the maids planned, is also rather taken with the idea of being a martyr, imagining her husband slumming in a prison cell. Genet intended the play to be further turned on its head by having all the parts in the play performed by male actors, which would be marvellously subversive, but hardly viable for more traditional theatre-goers or American film audiences.

In its filmed version for the American Film Theatre, The Maids is still challenging to the viewer and is in fact not much less effective thanks to the excellent casting. Where does the maids’ acting stop and the reality of their feelings come through? How much do the characters mean what they say and how far will they take their deranged drama? It’s this ambiguity that keeps the viewer intrigued through the morass of verbal self-flagellation and melodramatic role-playing, hoping to see behind the histrionics into what the characters really feel. Jackson particularly relishes the ambiguity of her part, pushing the role as far as it can go (for a female performer), yet intelligently leaving room for the viewer to speculate. Susannah York and Vivien Merchant are no less compelling in their roles as the real-life and the pretend foil for Solange’s fevered rants.

Director Christopher Miles relies heavily on the actor’s familiarity with Minos Volanakis’ 1973 Greenwich production of The Maids, which starred the same three women. He makes good use of the set, both in its appearance – gloriously and garishly decorated – and in spatial terms, allowing the actors to make great use of props, backgrounds and foregrounds, the camera dynamically interacting with the performance – sometimes even with handheld cameras – allowing the dramatic rhythm of the play to remain intact while making it also work on the big screen.

The American Film Theatre series was an ambitious attempt in the 1970s to bring drama rarely seen outside a Broadway stage to a wider American public. Each of the fourteen films that were made benefited from some of the finest stage actors and directors of the period, capturing some of remarkable original productions and permanently preserving them for future audiences. The Maids follows the AFT DVD releases of The Homecoming, Butley, A Delicate Balance and The Man In The Glass Booth, Rhinoceros and The Iceman Cometh as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre Collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of relevant and high quality extra features.

The image boasts bold, strong colour schemes. The colours are slightly garish and possibly slightly oversaturated, but they are perfect for the showiness of the set designs and the full-blooded performances. The image is however rather soft, occasionally looking a little blurry, lacking any real detail in wide shots. There is no real print damage – marks and dustspots are few and far between. The transfer however is plagued with compression artefacts, the blocking being evident in a jerkiness of movements and a constant flicker. It’s still not a bad picture though, certainly the best transfer in the AFT series so far, but the problems are clearly evident, possibly the consequence of a NTSC to PAL transfer.

The original Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is generally adequate for the most part, although it can be a bit muffled at times and difficult to make out all the dialogue clearly in places. There is no real distracting background hiss but there is heavy sibilance.

There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra material.

Interview with Susannah York (19:01)
Susannah York, looking terrific in a recent interview, compares performing the play on stage and in film. She also talks about the difficulties for an actor to get behind the characters and the differences between her and Glenda Jackson’s approach that give the play a unique balance. It’s an interesting interview.

Interview with Edie Landau (22:26)
The Executive in charge of the AFT, Edie Landau explains how the project came about, how they chose which plays to film, how they got everyone involved, and how the enterprise eventually failed. This is the same interview that is present on a number of the other titles.

AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for The Maids (2:57), Luther (2:28), Lost In The Stars (2:05), Three Sisters (2:41), Rhinoceros (1:50), The Iceman Cometh (2:37), The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Homecoming (2:29) and Butley (2:53).

AFT Cinebill
The programme notes for the film’s presentation contain several useful and informative articles and an excellent interview with Glenda Jackson. To Oblivion presents a chronology of Genet’s life and works, On Genet’s Theatre and The Maids contains quotes and reviews from a variety of viewpoints, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s admiration for Genet’s work. Glenda Jackson talks about The Maids and the place of women in the Theatre needs no further description than that.

Stills Gallery and Posters
The stills gallery contains 9 black & white and colour still images. One poster for the film is included.

Jean Genet and The Maids” is another good and very informative article by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, covering the Genet’s colourful life, his connection with Cocteau and Sartre, with coverage and insight into his other works.

The Maids is quite challenging theatre, requiring the viewer to distinguish between the play-acting of the characters and their real motivations and desires. Each of the actresses is magnificent in their roles however, teasing out the layers of meaning and poetry from the sometimes difficult and unpleasant dialogue. Not everyone is going to like Genet’s theatre of degradation and perversion and even Genet purists are not going to be happy with females in the roles, but this is a great opportunity, forever captured on film, of seeing The Maids performed exceptionally well. The DVD contains the usual problems that have been prevalent in other American Film Theatre titles, but most can be overlooked with the standard of the feature performances and the excellent supporting bonus features on the disc.

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