itching to sin
by Douglas Messerli
Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson (Screenplay), Julien Duvivier (director) Au Royaume des cieux (The Kingdom of Heaven), a. k. a. The Sinners / 1949
The 1949 French film Au Royaume des cieux, known in some markets as The Sinners, has all the ingredients of later lurid lesbian reformatory and prison films made mostly for heterosexual male audiences. Director Julien Duvivier’s film is set in a reformatory where fifty post-pubescent girls are housed for crimes ranging from revolutionary anarchistic activities, immoral behavior, and robbery, to prostitution and even murder. The girls, some of whom demonstrate lesbian desires, are often seen dressed in their underwear and generally grouped closely together in busy, crowded frames, bantering, verbally fighting, and, at one point, engaging in an out-of-control cat fight in their vast group bedroom.
The director of this institution, clearly a frustrated man-hating lesbian, sadistically punishes and tortures her charges, at one moment participating in an incident that today might be described as rape.
Although all of these things do occur in variations throughout The Kingdom of Heaven—the English title (closer to the original French) which I prefer—is a far more interesting and complex work than it first may seem, and has little in common with the Grade B movie genre I described above. While there is no question that this film belongs to the girl’s boarding school (Mädchen in Uniform and Olivia) / women’s prison dramas (Caged) genre, the film far transcends it as it centers upon the lives of some of the local townspeople and, most importantly, a true-love heterosexual story between the newest inmate, Maria Lambert (Suzanne Cloutier) and her lover on the outside who comes to her rescue, Pierre Massot (Serge Reggiani).
Just as intense as the pent-up human lusts and hate boiling in the inside of this institution, outside the rivers and streams roil up with the annual rains in this land of water and mud, threatening to drown the townspeople just as the emotional pressures rise within the old fortress transformed into a what has become a young women’s’ prison. It is no accident that when the dam walls break, so too do the women inside rise up and rebel against their sadistic director, bringing together the redeeming heterosexual love story and the internal “queer” emotions that have been kept under lock and key within the institution, creating a perfect symbiosis between the normative and queer forces at play in this work.
It is that same rain that ultimately endangers everyone’s life but also permits the escape of Maria and Pierre and helps, with the sacrifice of her life of the anarchist inmate, to foment the inside revolution that results in permanent change with the establishment of a new, kinder director, Miss Guérande (Monique Mélinand).
As the girls indirectly introduce themselves to the “newbie” Maria, they also reveal their own crimes and sexual preferences, some clearly heterosexual, others obviously lesbian, as when one girl, advertising her natural breasts asks Maria to touch them in order to prove that everything within her bra is real, while another greedily attempts to grab a feel for herself.
Another resident, nicknamed Gaby “Invoice”
apparently for her use of her body for monetary purposes, appears to be bisexual,
raising her skirt to show her thighs: “The left thigh is for men.
These variations of sexuality are presented as the director as normal, even if for his audiences they may have appeared to represent the rough lives these young girls have had to endure in order to survive their broken home lives and the criminal actions of their own parents. Yet the girls wear their differences like badges of honor, even allowing one girl to cry in response to almost everything since it clearly makes her feel better. And there are few hard feelings about their personal desires or past actions.
The major issues of conflict that arise between these young women relate to their present survival and future acts. They all dislike the anarchist among them who appears to constantly seek out dissension in order to foment revolution, which as I suggest she eventually accomplishes. Their fights with one another, however, are mostly about how to proceed, not about their core values or the acts that brought them all together. And their major topic of discussion is how to survive until they are released, particularly given the most recent developments regarding the directorship and regulations of Maison Haute Mère.
It is perhaps not so strange that it is the arrival of the innocent Maria—her major crime being to attempt to escape from her assigned employment with a family whose father and son both attempt to force her into sexual relationships—that sets off the series of events that completely alters the order of these girls’ lives as well as those who see themselves free of such malevolent control.
Things begin rather benignly, as the current director of Maison Haute Mère, Madame Bardin (Paule Andral), meets the young woman just brought to her. Although she greets the new girl with a rather menacingly interrogation of her past record, she soon after assures her that she recognizes these as minor infractions and attempts to explain that she is not being locked away in a prison—the doors and gates remain open, although there are punishments for those, like Margot, who abuse their regulations—but rather will hopefully be given the skills to work upon release in professions that do not entail the kind of indentured situations in which Maria has been placed. Complaining of the cold and damp of the former fortress which serves as the girl’s home, she suddenly receives a call from authorities saying their have finally found new quarters for the institution. But hardly has Madame Bardin had a moment to share the good news, before she falls to the floor, dead apparently of a heart attack.
Given the speed with which she takes up the telephone conversation and her seeming disinterest in what has just happened to Bardin, Miss Chamblas (Suzy Prim), we cannot help but suspect, may have involved in her predecessor’s death. Suddenly having been given command of the reformatory, she orders the open doors immediately bolted, the girls’ playtime be taken away until she discovers who has broken a drinking glass, the nearly rabid dog Goliath be untethered, and, after abruptly re-interrogating Maria, that she be locked away in basement cells that have never been previously used.
Somewhat like the wicked stepmother in Snow White, Chamblas immediately recognizes that Maria, in her beauty and innocence, represents everything she is not. And whereas, she might can quite easily intimidate and dominate the other girls, even possibly sexually satisfying her desires with some of them, Maria, in her moon-struck innocence is incorruptible.
Even the tough girls into whose quarters Miss Guérande, in rebellion against her superior, releases Maria, know that the new beauty is living in a reality unavailable to them which they jocularly refer to as “living in a movie in which locomotives fly the skies.” Yet it is her specialness, the fact that, despite the hard times she too has suffered, that she has remained untouched by them that attracts these women to her. When they finally are convinced through her and Pierre’s relationship that love does “still exist,” the only way they can imagine helping her—at least a first—is to turn to the spiritual world in which none of them any longer believe. Having even forgotten how to pray, they make up their own prayers to a God in which they don’t believe, chanting the word “Amen” each time their designated priestess says the world “thumb.” It is such a lovely scene that one tends to forgive Duvivier for so sentimentally connecting it up with Christmas, a day miracles always happen in motion pictures.
Maria’s outrage and declarations of hatred are so deserved that even Chamblas is speechless, as she sentences the girl to return to the dungeon, as if we needed further proof that in the perverted version of love represented by Chamblas, desire can only be expressed through power and pain; this character obviously has long been a student of de Sade.
Using the excuse of the annual girls’ Christmas choral presentation at the local church, Guérande once more intercedes, freeing Maria so that she might meet up with Pierre at the Christmas mass.
Oddly, God himself is presented in this film as an even more malevolent force than Chamblas—if you believe that nature is an expression of God’s will. The damn breaks and the flood waters come crashing into the church, rendering any actions of the priest almost meaningless as he calls for the roughly hewn rowing boats to be brought into to the sacred stone structure to save his parishioner’s lives.
After hiding out in the church steeple Pierre and Marie finally escape, but only after a chillingly dangerous run through the local fog and bogs in a police chase that almost takes away the frail child’s life . We can only hope that this time the police, wherever the two end up, will not yet again intervene in their relationship.
Meanwhile, the girls, finally realizing there are fifty of them compared with four elderly administrators, take over the reformatory, as Chamblas and her only true supporter lock themselves inside their office. The half-starved girls vandalize the institution’s kitchen, most of them getting drunk on the wines stocked for the pleasure of the staff. Once more her associate intervenes, allowing Chamblas safe passage out of the building where she is severely bitten by the brutal dog she has previously unleashed. Guérande is ordered to take over as director and the girls’ lives return to semi-order—although given that these young women have now come to realize their power, it seems doubtful that they will ever be fully ruled again.
It appears that “the kingdom of heaven” that this film purposes is attained only through challenge and disobedience, laying as it does outside of any self-described normative attempt to define, control, or delimit behavior, including sex and love. This sounds suspicious close to Milton’s description of the great angel Lucifer to me. Maybe The Sinners is not such a bad title after all.
*It is difficult to believe that Stephen Sondheim had not seen this film prior to writing the lyrics of his song “Maria” in West Side Story given that his message to Maria ends with the repetition of her name—“Maria, Maria, Maria”—with a final emphatic “Maria” at the end. As one of the female inmates observes:
Los Angeles, May 10, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).