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As subtle as a club to the head 

The Emperor's Club was originally going to be called The Palace Thief, after the Ethan Canin short story upon which it's based. But the film's producers must have reasoned, "Heck, we've already ripped off Dead Poet's Society; we may as well pinch its name, too." (Rumor has it that another suggested title was Mr. Hundert's Opus.) Both pictures are set at exclusive New England prep schools and are about unique teachers molding previously uninterested students into stone-cold learning machines. Instead of using poetry to get the kids riled up about life, Kevin Kline's William Hundert is a professor of Western Civilization . And that's only the beginning of how this second-rate flick pales in comparison to Society.

            I disliked Club almost immediately, and anyone with an ounce of cinematic self-respect should feel the same. When the opening scene showed an artificially aged Hundert with a wistful look on his mug as he stared off into space, it was all I could do to keep myself from standing up, shaking my fist at the screen, and screaming, "Don't you do it, you bastard!" The "it" I'm referring to is, of course, the narrative reminiscing, which will swallow us into one long flashback and then spit us back out into the present. But before I could get to my feet, Hundert had already started with his "As I've gotten older" recounting.

            As feared, we're taken back to 1972, where Hundert is both a teacher and a housemaster at St. Benedict's School for Boys. He specializes, apparently, in spewing a lot of profoundly irritating things that instantly put teenage boys at the ready. Like most movies about teachers, Hundert's students don't like him at first, but he slowly grows on them, both as a friend and an educator .

            Conflict arises upon the arrival of Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), a new student who is all sneer and attitude, and who also just happens to be the much-neglected son of a US Senator from West Virginia (Harris Yulin). Bell's contempt for authority earns the respect of three other students, to whom he introduces pornography (didn't they do this in Society, too?). Has Hundert finally met his match? Will both he and Bell learn a little something about life when they're done butting heads? After all, they're both suffering from the Please Love Me, Daddy complex, as Hundert still lives in the shadow of his father, who was a famous author. Jesus, you can practically write your own spoof of the trailer voiceover --- "One needs to loosen up; the other needs to buckle down."

            Club doesn't fail so much as it just doesn't even bother trying. It plays like a CBS Movie of the Week. Forget the abandoned subplots involving Rob Morrow and Embeth Davidtz (the latter of whom appeared as confused as I was about the point of her character's existence), and the bizarre Julius Caesar competition (What the hell? Is it open to the whole school? Why does it only include the material Hundert teaches?). What's with Club's message? Best I can tell, it's that lying and cheating might make you rich, powerful, happy, and attractive, but being honest makes you feel sooo good on the inside. Meanwhile, back in reality, the only thing that might warm my heart is riding the carcasses of writer Neil Tolkin (of Licensed to Drive, Richie Rich, and Jury Duty fame) and director Michael Hoffman (who ruined Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) down a large, snowy mountain.

            When Roger Ebert reviewed Society, he said Robin Williams' character was "more of a plot device than a human being." But you can understand why Williams' students fell under his spell --- he was an exciting teacher who instilled passion into his charges. Hundert acts like he runs on batteries. He's the straightest, stick-up-the-ass arrow not played by Denzel Washington. Here's to hoping "Hail, Caesar!" doesn't replace "O Captain, my Captain!" in your movie mythology.

Back in 1933, a Le Mans double murder became France's version of our own Leopold and Loeb saga. This crime was shocking because it was perpetrated by two servants and the unrecognizable victims were their wealthy bosses. It was more startling that the killers were women, and doubly scandalous because the women were lovers. The fact that they were also sisters was merely the icing on the infamous cake. At the time, the murders were beyond upsetting, appearing to be completely unprovoked and without warning. History has been kind to the plight of the Papin sisters, because they're nearly portrayed here as tragic heroes. One wonders if they'll make similarly sympathetic films about O.J. Simpson in 70 years.

            We've seen movies about unprovoked killings of authority figures by same-sex underlings who got it on (most notably Peter Jackson's wonderful Heavenly Creatures), and even a couple that were based, at least in part, on the Papin sisters (like 1994's Sister My Sister, or Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie). Jean-Pierre Denis' Murderous Maids, based on Paulette Houdyer's novel L'Affaire Papin, is yet another telling of their tale. Like those other films, it portrays the connection between the two killers as a leader-follower kind of relationship. One is headstrong, and the other appears to simply be along for the ride out of sheer admiration.

            We first see Christine and Léa Papin as young girls living at a very strict convent school with an older sister named Emile. Their shady-sounding father has run off to the war, and their maid mother Clémence (Isabelle Renauld) seems ill-equipped to deal with her own spawn. Once they've reached the appropriate age, Clémence yanks two of her kids out of the nunnery to work with her, leaving the devout Emile there to become a bride of Jesus. When Christine (Sylvie Testud) asks to stay with Emile, Clémence smacks her in the chops and shouts, "You'll work and slave like me!"

            While Clémence pimps her daughters out as housekeepers, Christine develops a certain... ummm... closeness with Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier), most likely because the younger sister is her last connection to the real world, and the only one who hasn't abandoned her. Plus she wants to fuck with her evil mother and decides that prying the naïve and simple Léa away from her and latching on might be the best way. So after being treated like dirt by a number of snooty bosses, the sisters become employed by the family Lincelan. The Lincelans happen to be the kindest clan they've worked for, though they have the misfortune of being the authority figures when the clearly psycho Christine finally snaps. The murder is brutal, but certainly no more disturbing than the sister-on-sister action.

            Maids, which plays at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 23, at the Dryden Theatre, was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, and Most Promising Actress (twice) at the César Awards (France's Oscar), but only Testud walked away a winner. She's an incredible actress with a very unusual face who is successfully able to play her mostly restrained role with just a hint of total insanity bubbling underneath (and she'll be playing a maid again in the [hopefully] upcoming The Chateau). As Maids is more of a character study of Christine than anything, Parmentier doesn't have much to do other than stand around and look innocent. Denis's cold, clinical direction employs no music to ratchet up the tension as we hurtle toward the ending we call know is coming. The title says it all.

Interested in more movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site Planet Sick-Boy, www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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