Francois Ozon’s 8 femmes (8 Women) is a fluffy pastiche of various genres that work surprisingly well. An Agatha Christie-style whodunit, there are also elements of Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama, slapstick comedy and Hollywood musical. The cast is a Francophile’s dream come true: three generations of France’s most accomplished actresses, all playing up to, or confounding their public personas. Headlined by legends such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Danielle Darrieux, the cast looks like it’s having a great time in this clever tuneful mystery.
The plot is classic paperback mystery: a man is murdered and the eight prime suspects are stuck in a large mansion, and soon accusations fly. Each woman has a motive to kill Marcel, the man of the house, a vaguely rich financier. Was it Gaby (Deneuve), his beautiful and glamorous wife? Or possibly his neurotic and spiteful sister-in-law, Augustine (Huppert)? Maybe his sexpot sister, Pierrette (Ardant)? Each woman, including the man’s two daughters (Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier), a penny-pinching mother-in-law (Darrieux) and a pair of domestics (Emmanuelle Beart and Firmine Richard) has a motive and opportunity to kill Marcel, and the tomboyish daughter, Catherine (Sagnier) plays detective, interrogating her companions. As appropriate for a film like this, there are plot twists that involve betrayal, lust and love and the ending is fittingly a surprise.
Ozon usually makes films with more substance (see his classic, Under the Sand), though it would be a mistake to call this complete fluff. The plot is riddled with cliches and plot elements: it’s not enough that the women are trapped in the house with the killer, but there’s a snowstorm, and the phone line’s dead. Each plot twist is accentuated by the melodramatic soundtrack. This is all done, of course, with tongue-firmly in cheek. Ozon isn’t interested in making a great film noir — instead, he’s crafted a wonderful homage to aspects of film he finds appealing. While comparisons to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, are tempting, it’s more fitting to compare 8 femmes to George Cukor’s 1939 all-star classic, The Women. Ozon employs the same kind of cattiness and bitchiness as Cukor did, and given the distance irony allows, the viewer can revel in the jokes without worrying about any charges of misogyny.
Because the film is so self-aware, it’s wonderful that Ozon found a group of actresses “in” on the joke. Each performs her part well but departs from her comfort zone — instead the women adopt a stylized way of acting, most comparable on television soaps. They do not play for laughs, remembering to keep the emotions true, but they fit very well into Ozon’s artifical setting. It would be difficult to choose standouts, but, predictably, the older actresses outperform the younger ones. Deneuve is glorious fun, sending up her image as an ice queen. She looks stunning. Huppert also is wonderful, submerging her good looks under twitchy mannerisms and howling histerics. Darrieux, still a looker, steals her scenes as the dotty, though extremely manipulative matriarch.
Aside from the cast, the musical numbers are the most notable aspects of the film. Each cast member gets her own solo number to strut her stuff. It’s safe to say that no one in this film will moonlight as pop stars (though Deneuve has already been in a number of muscials), and the amateurish way the ladies perform their ditties adds to the humor of the film – none of the actresses mug through the numbers.
8 femmes isn’t Ozon’s best work, though it’s still miles ahead of most of Hollywood’s output. The musical numbers, the staginess and the melodramatic moments lend themselves to the general irony of the film, but by the end, the story turns surprisingly touching and poignant, as the director allows for small bursts of truth to peek out from the layers of synthetic gloss.