Here is a
lovely, light counterpoint to Todd Hayne’s rather depressing Far From Heaven
. François Ozon’s 8 Women
may not live up to mysterious, thrilling standards set by his previous film Under The Sand
, but in a year where praise for Hayne’s amazing, but melancholy, take on 1950s American melodrama, Ozon’s take, which is frothier, funnier and more outlandish might just be a cure for anyone feeling a bit sad when remembering Julianne Moore’s trapped heroine in Far From Heaven
Adapted from Robert Thomas’s play, 8 Women
has all the frills of a genre piece, 1950s or otherwise, as eight women of various classes and relations are spending a frigid winter day inside the magnificently decadent country house of Gaby (Catherine Deneuve). A maid quickly discovers Gaby’s husband, the only man in the house, to be dead and the beautiful winter to have trapped them all inside the house. The other 7 women, two maids (one black), Gaby’s older and younger daughters, Gaby’s sexpot sister-in-law, Gaby’s spinster sister, and Gaby’s alcoholic mother (played by Emmanuelle Béart, Firmine Richard, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, Fanny Ardent, Isabelle Huppert, and Danielle Darrieux, respectively) are not only all trapped in a house with a dead man, but they are all possible suspects in his murder. In a typical fashion, bits and pieces of each character is revealed-along with their secrets and their possible motives-which of course keeps everyone guessing until the end.
Ozon wisely relies more on the strong visual and audio aesthetics of the film as well as the sparks generated by such extreme feminine claustrophobia rather than the plot developments of an old genre.
Ozon purposely stages the film in a theatrical fashion, opening the film with a fairly obvious shot of painted soundstage and introduces the country house as one trapped inside the studio painted walls (giving the film a brief glimpse of genre self-reflection that only pops up once more at the end of the film, but in a different way). The script’s theatrical roots are obvious, and most of 8 Women
’s action takes place in the main room of the house yet Ozon’s visuals never get dull. For one, each character in the film is setup and identified by spectacular 50s period costumes which not only makes it visually easy to keep track of all these women hustling and bustling around the house, but through color and style the costumes allow for an easy insight into each woman’s personality (constricted, outlandish, sexual etc.). Despite being restricted by such a limited set (though its size and openness provide some nice breathing space) and a strange use of rather flat lighting, Ozon never lets the visuals of the film get dull. Beyond the colorful costumes and the necessarily superb production design of the winter clad house, Ozon has so many beautiful French faces that one would have to try to make this a bad looking film. He will open with a beautiful group composition of everyone in the scene, and the camera will slowly, lovingly, zoom into the face of the speaker, and the rest of the scene will play out with simple, elegant compositions of only one or two women. This keeps down the visual confusion of eight women stuck in one house, as well as highlighting just how gorgeous (and talented of course, those almost as a secondary characteristic) these women are.
The French or at least audience members very well versed in French cinema, will no doubt have a ball watching this near legendary ensemble of great French actresses locked up together in a dangerously claustrophobic place. In fact is, it probably is a near malicious pleasure, wanting these great, beautiful actresses to lash out at each other, throws fits and the like. With the exception of the black maid all these women reveal themselves to be cruel and twistedly sexual, each in their own ways. 8 Women
nevers comes off as dark though, as it was lovingly placed into a semi-campy genre setting that makes it fun to watch all these manipulative and mean women bouncing off the walls and into each other, with accusations, secrets reveals and musical numbers.
Oh that’s right, 8 Women
is not only a slight send up to 50s melodramas crossed with an Agatha Christy murder mystery, it also is a musical. Every once and a while a woman will step away from the group and sing the rest of them a song, usually to help explain themselves a little better (for example Emmanuelle Béart’s maid sings about why she seduces men, or how Isabelle Huppert’s viper-like spinster sings about how she shows her love through her hate). Ozon uses old (and not so old) French pop songs which the actresses lip sync with, and the musical numbers are stylized with a strong use of shadows mixed with the usual color rich compositions. The first numbers are a bit jarring, but other than the color stylistics Ozon downplays the weird grandeur of musical numbers, making them small intimate solos for each actress, each with a lovely, light dance choreography, if any at all. The songs slide in easily with the rest of the content of the film: funny, a bit whimsical, a bit melodramatic, and a bit sexy.
It would be a stretch to look for greater thematic meaning to the film, which can easily be swallowed as a fun, frothy, sometimes delightfully wicked melodramedy. Sure, one could search for something beyond the coded costuming and melodramaic score (nearly outdoing Elmer Bernstein’s 50s throwback in Far From Heaven
) and probably find 8 Women
’s content somewhere in its immensely strong feminine presence. Perhaps, in its wide but mean view of female characteristics it illustrates how women held all the power in the melodramas of old,
that behind their submissive social appearance they were dangerous, full of sexuality, greed and power lust. Behind 8 Women
’s fun, superficial appearance is the fact that almost none of these women are good people, which is something the end of the film and the discovery of the murderer hammers home with terrible force. Here could be the missing message of the film, buried under the women’s struggles for power in the group, trying to simultaneously displace guilt but maintain a strong appearance, but if so than it is a decidedly cruel and misogynist conclusion. And so it is certainly much more enjoyable to take the film as a romp, with eight terrific, sexy, gorgeous and extremely talented actresses of young and old (this is The Year of Huppert, I think). They are stuck in warm house during a cold storm with a murderer amongst them and the only male presence in the movie dead. They get to fight, kiss, sing, crack jokes, weald guns, booze, seduce, go crazy, accuse, attempt murder and reveal secrets, what could be more fun?