Complicated Sister Relationships in Cinema

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Based on the love triangle between real-life aristocratic sisters Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld and rebellious German poet Friedrich Schiller, Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters — which opens in theaters this weekend — explores the trio’s playful and complicated relationship. Sororal kinship and all its complexities have been a source of fascination for filmmakers for decades. Here are ten movies that center on the feminine familial bond and rivalries between sisters in compelling ways.

The Virgin Suicides

In Sofia Coppola’s debut feature, the Lisbon sisters try to bridge the gap between real and perceived notions of sex. Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Coppola’s film focuses on the mystification of sex that results from the Lisbon girls’ isolation from everyone outside of their family. The girls’ parents, played by Kathleen Turner and James Woods, are largely, but not completely to blame for their deaths, however. Instead, Coppola respects and even preserves the air of mystery that surrounds the film’s heroines, allowing their libidinal frustrations to remain a source of fascination.

Sisters

Dominique and Danielle Blanchion, a pair of conjoined twins, are not the main protagonists of Sisters, director Brian De Palma’s first masterpiece, but they are the film’s main preoccupation. While Sisters is essentially a murder mystery, it invites audiences to uncover who the Blanchions were and what happened to them after their forced separation. Similar to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Sisters focuses on the breakdown of the psyche between siblings who define themselves in the shadow of the other.

A Tale of Two Sisters

South Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s breakthrough movie is a brooding horror film based on The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon, a popular Korean fairy tale. Like Sisters, Kim’s film concerns separation anxiety and the responsibility one feels for a sibling. Sisters turn to one another in solidarity against their indifferent father and cruel stepmother. A sad and violent story ensues.

Ginger Snaps

Teen hormones rage and destroy the ties that bind two sisters in this darkly comedic horror film that explores adolescent (female) fears. Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) turns to sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) after she transforms into a murderous, sex-crazed werewolf. There doesn’t seem to be a cure, threatening Ginger’s rapidly vanishing humanity — but the film makes it clear that the greater loss is Ginger’s connection to Brigitte.

Hannah and Her Sisters

None of their stories have easy resolutions, but the women of Woody Allen’s engrossing dramedy all find paths to happiness. Spanning three Thanksgivings, Hannah (Mia Farrow) watches as her sisters Holly (Dianne Wiest) and Lee (Barbara Hershey) stop holding out for other people to make them happy and find ways to become self-sufficient. Opportunity comes after Holly settles on a career that doesn’t rely on anyone else’s money or abilities. Lee rejects a messy love affair. The community of neurotic, but totally relatable women teach each other how to live. “Mellow, beautiful, rich and brimming with love, Hannah is the best Woody Allen yet and, quite simply, a great film,” wrote the L.A. Times in 1986. “It’s Allen with greater emotional complexity than we’ve seen before, more understanding of the foibles of others, less edgy about his own. It’s still smart, still funny — you aren’t going to take that away from this New Yorker — but Hannah’s comedy doesn’t lacerate, it alleviates.”

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Forced to live together during the autumn of life, aging starlets Blanche and Jane (Joan Crawford and Bette Davis) wind up reliving and revisiting the petty rivalries that led to the destruction of their sororal bond. Directed by Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opens festering emotional wounds and reveals bitter jealousy through caustic dialogue. Crawford and Davis play off each other like pros. The tension they create builds until Davis tragically begs her sister, “You mean we could have been friends this whole time?”

Sister My Sister

Based on My Sister in This House, a play written by screenwriter Wendy Kesselman, Sister My Sister takes inspiration from the real-life case of Christine and Léa Papin, siblings who murdered their boss and her daughter. In the film, Christine (Joely Richardson), a reserved chambermaid, forms a near-incestuous bond with sister Lea (Jodhi May) after she convinces her boss (Julie Walters) to hire Lea. The women share an emotional burden in a world segregated from their bourgeois employer, but jealousy and paranoia quietly destroy the sisters’ relationship.

Fat Girl

French provocatrice Catherine Breillat’s caustic coming of age story centers on Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and her second-hand sexual experiences — all violent and cruel. Her older sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is coerced into a relationship with lothario Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). Confused and withdrawn from the world, Anaïs absorbs her sister’s experiences, accepting the abusive exchanges as universally true. Sibling rivalry and bonding are equally dissected with Breillat’s penetrating gaze.

The Silence

One sister defines herself in opposition to the other in The Silence, Ingmar Bergman’s devastating drama about two estranged women, now fully grown and seeking asylum from an impending war in a fictional Central European town. Following years of unspoken resentment, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) feels vexed around older sister Ester (Ingrid Thulin), an ailing translator. She tries to seek revenge, using her sister’s sickness as a means of making her feel worthless, but ultimately Anna realizes that Ester is not the monstrous mentor she wanted to believe. “In The Silence, the tensions of familial relationships, sister to sister, mother to son, aunt to nephew, are still acutely felt, but the effort that goes into trying to salvage those connections is feeble and quickly abandoned,” writes David Blakeslee.

Ripe

Adolescent fantasies become nightmares for twin sisters Rosie (Daisy Eagan) and Violet (Monica Keena) after their abusive parents die unexpectedly in a car crash. The event compels the sisters to run off, become their own keepers, and explore their budding sexuality. But jealousy eventually pushes the two girls apart. Director Mo Ogrodnik captures the resulting tensions and complex emotions surrounding young women testing the boundaries of personhood.