Release Date(s)1975 (June 19, 2018)
Studio(s)American Film Theatre (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
The Maids was originally a part of the second season of The American Film Theatre, a subscription series of motion pictures adapted from plays. Sisters Solange (Glenda Jackson) and Claire (Susannah York) are Paris housemaids who tend to the domestic needs of a socialite (Vivien Merchant). Whenever Madame is away, the maids conduct elaborate rituals, putting on their mistress’ dresses and impersonating her in a masochistic game of domination and control. Gradually, the urge to kill their beloved and hated Madame becomes stronger, and their deranged minds weaker, fueling a lust for revenge on the woman they serve.
Based on the absurdist one-act play by Jean Genet, The Maids consists of a series of bizarre episodes rather than a typical linear narrative. The movie toys with illusion and reality. Madame, for example, regards various tokens the maids give her in hatred as expressions of love. The servants delight in their odd role-playing games when Madame is away, but are they continuing their game when she’s present as well? That’s the conundrum.
The film reflects its theatrical origins with limited sets, though they are opulently appointed. The dialogue, too, is not conversational, but sounds more like stage dialogue — broad, overly clever, and extensive. The goal of The American Film Theatre was to present excellent theatrical works to a wide audience, so director Christopher Miles does not pare down the dialogue, but tries opening up the play with a series of exteriors that really add little.
The performances by both Ms. Jackson and Ms. York are excellent, making a viewing of The Maids worthwhile. These are stage-trained actresses who benefit from close-ups to reveal the madness in their eyes and their joy in releasing tension by living the adage, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Ms. Merchant is also the vision of artifice, with a forced smile and high-sounding pronouncements as she flits about the room, arms outstretched in a haughty posture. All three actresses performed the play in London, so their performances reflect a deep understanding of their characters.
The problem is that, even at 94 minutes, all the pretense and extravagant posturing wears thin before the movie is over. On stage, the actors might be able to hold the audience better, but on celluloid, it’s a tougher battle.
Special materials on the widescreen Blu-ray release include an interview with director Christopher Miles; interview with Ely Landau, Executive Producer of The American Film Theatre series; gallery of trailers for The American Film Theatre; and Ely Landau: In Front of the Camera, a promotional film for The American Film Theatre.
- Dennis Seuling