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8 Women / 8 Femmes (R)
USA Films
8 Women Official Site
8 Femmes Official Site
Director: François Ozon
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Written by: François Ozon, Marina De Van; play by Robert Thomas
Cast: Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, Firmine Richard, Dominique Lamure

Rating: out of 5

Ozon (Under The Sand, Water Drops On Burning Rocks) wanted to remake The Women, but when he found out that Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts own the rights to that classic bitchfest he searched instead for a property with an all-female cast. 8 Femmes, a 1960s play by Robert Thomas, comes close. There is a ninth, male, character, but he’s not important in and of himself. Only the fact of him matters in this murder/mystery/musical/comedy.

That’s a lot of genres, and Ozon & Co. were wise to go very stagey with the sets, lighting, and wardrobe. When Gaby (Deneuve) and oldest daughter Suzon (Ledoyen) arrive at the family manse, they drive up to a house that makes no effort to look like anything but a painted backdrop, through the fakiest-looking snow ever. Really. A deer walks through this stuff, leaving no discernible hoofprints. The story is also set in the late 1950s—which allowed the costumer to romp and play with garments that range from Sandra Dee-wear to Audrey Hepburn-chic to Rita Hayworth-glamour to full-blown Lana Turner—and the production is designed to recall movies of that era. One of the immediate benefits to the viewer is the contemplation of eight lovely women, most of them wearing improbable clothes and looking like movie stars. So. Much. Beauty. The only thing that’s missing is actual Technicolor. Every sight and every sound is designed to be just a little too much, just a shade over the top, but in that good, theater way, if your theater happens to be melodrama.

When shocking turns of events occur, there are shots of women huddled together, almost clutching each others’ hands, their startled, lovely faces highlighted. When there’s danger, the score provides wonderful “drama” music—deet deet deet DEEEEE!—just in case you missed the point. When a crucial clue is about to be identified… a shot rings out! 8 Women both spoofs and respects murder mysteries by borrowing from such impeccable sources as Murder By Death and Sherlock Holmes stories. (Playwright Thomas was known and respected in the mystery genre; he sold one of his other plays to Alfred Hitchcock, who died before it could be filmed.)

So what’s it all about? Daughter Suzon returns from her English school to the estrogen-laced air of home. She’s greeted by her younger sister, Catherine (Sagnier), her viper-tongued virginal aunt Augustine (Huppert), her malingering grandmother Mamy (Darrieux), devoted housekeeper Madame Chanel (Richard), and Louise (Beart), a new and insubordinate chambermaid. Papa is upstairs, sleeping in his room. After the usual family wrangling, Catherine goes to wake him and finds him lying face-down in bed in a pool of gore, the haft of a serious-looking knife protruding from his back. The next surprise is the appearance of Pierrette (Ardant), Papa’s disreputable sister, who has hiked over through the “snow” in a pair of killer pumps, and who immediately becomes the prime suspect. But Pierrette is not the only femme harboring a secret and soon the walls of the house can barely contain all the intrigue, suspicion, and shocking revelations.

The blizzard and a severed phone cord leave the women cut off from civilization and needing desperately to identify the murderer in their midst. Led by Catherine, whose detecting skills come from avid reading of mystery novels, these women are just barely more competent than Inspector Clouseau. As more and more about Papa’s last, fatal night comes to light, each woman tells us what makes her tick by bursting into a well-chosen, revelatory song (and sometimes dance). These set pieces almost certainly are of Ozon’s invention rather than the playwright’s, and they are well worth the gamble. One wonders what went through the actresses’ minds when they first read the scripts. If they had any reservations at all, they do not show. Ozon must have earned their complete trust, because there’s no tinge of gamely-going-along-with-a-brave-experiment in anyone’s performance. That they act, sing their own songs, and dance also hearkens back to the ’50s, the tail end of the days when studios trained their stars to do it all.

On top of that, the dialogue is clever and the family interactions are pretty damn funny. Of course there are flaws, particularly where the plot concerns the mystery. If they drove in in this snow, why can’t they drive out to the cops? Why can’t the butcher deliver if the baker just drove by? Why don’t they all just stay together in the same room? But 8 Women is so uniformly charming that it feels churlish to linger over questions like these. And oh, that catchy French pop!

—Roxanne Bogucka


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