On paper, 8 Women sounds like a movie buff’s dream. Writer-director Francois Ozon, the bad boy of contemporary French cinema, has assembled four generations of actresses for a confetti-colored Christmas house party combining mirth, music, and mayhem. The result, however, falls short of one’s understandably high expectations. Although the film’s star power makes it worth seeing, it’s disappointingly sluggish, smugly postmodern, and sourly misogynistic.
In interviews, Ozon has indicated that he wanted to remake The Women, George Cukor’s screen version of Clare Boothe’s catty all-female 1936 play. After learning that the rights had already been obtained for a projected Hollywood vehicle for Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, he turned to 8 Femmes, an obscure ’60s stage drama by Robert Thomas. In this Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit, a group of women, one of whom is a murderer, is marooned in a remote, snowbound estate.
Following the opening titles, in which each actress’s name is accompanied by a close-up of a flower, 8 Women’s establishing shots—stylized studio exteriors of a manor house in a snowstorm complete with nibbling fawn—announce Ozon’s decision to ignore the constraints of realism to create a work of unabashed artifice. When his camera invades the dwelling’s walls, where the rest of the movie takes place, we’re confronted with a handsomely appointed theatrical set—a decorative, cloistered space in which the characters reveal dark secrets and resurrect familial rivalries.
One problem of adapting such a claustrophobic property for the screen is the time required to introduce the octet of potential killers. Despite the resourceful contributions of his ensemble, Ozon is unable to prevent so much character exposition from bogging down. Marcel (Dominique Lamure), the briefly glimpsed victim, has apparently been stabbed by a member of his family or domestic staff. The former include his elegant, devoted wife, Gaby (Catherine Deneuve); her miserly mother, Mamy (Danielle Darrieux); Gaby’s cranky, spinsterish sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); the couple’s two daughters, poised Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) and rebellious Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier); and Marcel’s vampish sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant). The other potential culprits are the saucy chambermaid Louise (Emmanuelle Beart) and the longtime housekeeper Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard).
Ozon spends nearly an hour introducing this gallery of women before the plot kicks in, and, even then, he fails to create much suspense. There’s never an indication that the killer might seek out a second victim or much concern devoted to detecting the culprit’s identity. Instead, each of the characters performs a musical number, chosen to express some aspect of her nature. Unlike the vintage songs Dennis Potter ingeniously included as commentary in his television plays Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, Ozon’s musical numbers, staged with the performers singing to the camera as they might in a videotaped home talent show, are largely time-killers. They tell us little that the characters—all stock types—have not previously disclosed. One can’t help admiring the actresses’ gumption during their warbling efforts, but only the last of these interludes really pays off: Darrieux, the sole cast member with extensive musical experience, scores with her affecting interpretation of the rueful ballad “There Is No Happy Love.”
Undistinguished as a thriller or a musical, 8 Women is slightly more effective as a comedy, though Ozon’s arch dialogue often lacks sufficient edge to make the catfights and torrential bitchery risible. Indeed, the only laugh-out-loud gag derives from the Three Stooges: Exasperated by her mother’s constant carping, Gaby silences the elderly scold by bopping her with a liquor bottle.
Without its dream cast, the movie would be tediously flat, but the convergence of these actresses is nonetheless something of a special event. Darrieux’s performance is especially poignant: The octogenarian actress’s deeply lined but still lovely face has lost none of the expressiveness it possessed when she played the title role of Max Ophuls’ 1953 masterpiece Madame de…. Deneuve, who also played Darrieux’s daughter in a more memorable French musical, Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, is classy and spunky as the victim’s wife. Beart’s maid is a deliciously perverse sex kitten, an updated Brigitte Bardot, and Huppert’s Augustine is the movie’s biggest surprise: The actress casts off her trademark inertness in a high-spirited performance filled with twitchy, snippy backbiting. But of all the ensemble, Ardant makes the boldest impression—magnetic, worldly, and darkly voluptuous.
Although flatteringly gowned, coiffed, and photographed, Ozon’s women are all eventually exposed as treacherous, perverse, or incestuous. It would be too simplistic to conclude that Ozon, an openly gay filmmaker, detests women. But by the end of the movie, those emblematic opening-credit flowers have withered, leaving the impression that he holds women in higher regard as cinematic icons than as human beings.
Throughout 8 Women, Ozon amuses himself by imitating the artificial style of ’50s Hollywood melodramas and musicals. The decor alludes to Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows, and other tearjerkers Douglas Sirk made for Universal, and the color schemes echo the vibrant hues of Vincente Minnelli’s MGM musicals. (In one striking homage, Ardant doffs a dark cloak to reveal a blazing scarlet dress, just as Cyd Charisse did in the ballet that ends Minnelli’s The Band Wagon.) But these film-buff allusions tend to make 8 Women feel distant and slightly academic, more of a curate’s egg than an omelette aux fines herbes.
The film’s remote, studied tone partly stems from Ozon’s ambition to upgrade his reputation from cult provocateur to mainstream filmmaker. His early features, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks, as well as his shocking featurette, See the Sea, blended transgressive subject matter with perverse humor. His last film, Under the Sand, muted some of these elements to create a smashing showcase for actress Charlotte Rampling. But some filmmakers were born to be bad, and the compromises they make to attract a mass audience dilute the power of their vision. Just as John Waters’ Cry-Baby and Pedro Almodovar’s High Heels proved to be diluted versions of their breakthrough films, 8 Women is a weak solution of Ozon’s
unsettling art. CP