8 Women March 21, 2017
To call François Ozon’s uproarious musical comedy 8 Women (2002) stagey wouldn’t be all too exaggerative – consider most of its 111 minutes are set within the living room of a chic manor on the French countryside. But while most films lose their cinematic energy when all the action is generally confined to a single location, this movie doesn’t. As it’s a scrumptious blending of murder mystery, Technicolor musical, romp, social satire, and old-fashioned melodrama, the artificial theatricality of it all freshens the genre tropes lurking beneath the premises and makes seen-it-all-before formula suddenly unfamiliar, invigorating.
Adapted from the 1958 stage play of the same name, 8 Women is an ensemble piece centered around the unexpected stabbing death of Marcel, a loaded entrepreneur married to Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), an aging housewife, and father to teenage girls Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) and Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier). All events are set in the family’s decadent manor, wherein Gaby’s judgmental mother (Danielle Darrieux) and frigid sister (Isabelle Huppert) also reside. Housekeepers Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) and Chanel (Firmine Richard) scurry about, too. Clearly, one of these women is responsible for Marcel's demise.
To supplement the intrigue, Marcel’s sister, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), arrives for a visit just as the goings start to get rough. A blizzard enhances the claustrophobia. Someone has locked the gate that would otherwise allow the perpetrator a seamless escape.
In strictest descriptive terms, 8 Women sounds like your typical Agatha Christie novel – gaggle of colorful characters, all of whom have a multitude of things to hide, turn into murder suspects after a surprise stabbing and cannot leave the situation until the executioner is unmasked.
But as we dig deeper into the picture’s interior, we realize that Ozon isn’t merely going for a cinematic whodunit without Miss Marple around to do the sleuthing. What he’s going for, it seems, is a myriad of other things, some obvious and some subtly cerebral.
Most clear is that 8 Women is meant to pay tribute to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the cast-driven farces of George Cukor – just look at how close it visually resembles something akin to Written on the Wind (1956) and how closely it sonically matches The Women (1939) or The Philadelphia Story (1940). The stylistic cues, of course, aren’t accidental: Ozon’s adoration of Hollywood's "Golden Age" is distinct (and well-documented), and here he’s not so much imitating the poshness of the MGM machine as he is emulating (and sometimes embodying) it.
To look at it is to be seduced by it, and yet 8 Women’s biggest strength is the way it’s able to humanize stage-bound characters and turn them into vulnerable people without losing grip of the film’s frothy touch. I especially like the way Huppert, assigned the utmost comedic part in the film (she plays a fast-talking spinster who gets the opportunity to deliver the snappiest lines), never seems too broad because Ozon always keeps her fragility in check. Key moments reveal that she hates the way she is. She's aware that she's harpy and that she's shrill, and she wants nothing more than to transform herself into someone other than a black sheep.
And not a character in 8 Women isn't like this: all are types – from the unhappy housewife to the maid having an affair with her employer – but they’re all given scenes which define them as susceptible beings that are only types because society has turned them into types.
Ozon’s attentiveness toward his and co-screenwriter Marina de Van’s creations is crucial in making 8 Women more than pure pastiche, as are the lively performances by the charismatic ensemble of actorial heavyweights that enliven the scenery. In the process of championing its emotional aptitude, perhaps I’ve made the film sound like a deeply serious social commentary as an effect of my admiration for Ozon’s sneakily profound writing.
But make no mistake: 8 Women is, at its most simplistic, a delightful vehicle meant to provide a convincing reason as to why France’s best actresses should come together for a feature. The humor is sharp, the songs frenetically performed, the performances pitch-perfect. This is an accessible, mighty enjoyable musical/mystery/comedy deserving of repeated viewings. It’s comfort food on a cinematic level, and a sugary delicacy of its renown has never tasted so good. A-