Monday, 13 August 2007

The Maids (1974)

The American Film Theatre series of the 1970s was an attempt to translate a number of notable plays into film. The Maids, based on Jean Genet’s play and directed by Christopher Miles, succeeded surprisingly well, thanks largely to three extraordinary acting performances. Solange (Glenda Jackson) and Claire (Susannah York) are sisters who work as maids for a woman we know only as Madame (Vivien Merchant). While Madame is out the sisters act out their “ceremony” in which one of them takes on the role of Madame. This role-playing drags to the surface all the humiliation and rage they feel in their demeaning and subservient real-life roles. As the fantasies escalate they plot to have Madame’s husband imprisoned on false charges and to murder Madame. The game is by now, however, out of their control. The play allowed Genet to play around with all sorts of inversions, political, social and sexual – apart from the sisters’ play-acting the roles of the three women were originally intended to be played by men. Having the roles played by women doesn’t really seem to weaken the film – there’s still an abundance of sexual ambiguity. Glenda Jackson delivers a powerhouse performance and gets to deliver some quite incredibly vicious invective with a great deal of relish. Anyone else would have been blown off the screen playing opposite such a performance but Susannah York’s performance is just as powerful and just as disturbing as she switches between subservience a Claire and haughty superiority a Claire-playing-as-Madame. The film is very claustrophobic with almost all the action confined to a single room. The performances are stagey, melodramatic and totally over-the-top but deliberately so – this is a film in which naturalism would be ludicrously out of place. The Maids is an unusual film, worth seeing just for the opportunity to see Jackson and York in full flight at their absolute peak and also worth seeing as a fascinating and very confronting look at class, gender and sexual politics.

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