What an absolute joy this film is. François Ozon (Sitcom , Under the Sand , Swimming Pool ) is a young and prolific director whose career has already bridged comedy and melodrama, exploring starkly different styles from film to film. 8 Femmes suggests a modern take on that all-female classic, The Women (1939).
Like in that story, the central man here, Marcel, the patriarch of a family, is a shadowy, peripheral, essentially insignificant figure (Ozon, in a wonderful gag, never even shows his face). Yet every woman is closely connected to him (as wife, mother, daughter, sister, servant, etc), and every problem revolves around him. Especially when, one morning, he is found dead in his bed, a knife buried in his back.
Like Gosford Park (2001) and The Cat's Meow (2002), 8 Femmes is an Agatha Christie-style whodunit set in a single location, this time a bourgeois household cut off from the rest of the world by a handy snowstorm. But the mystery story, which indeed holds many surprises in store, is really only a pretext for examining the interactions between the women.
And they are quite a bunch. Gaby (Catherine Deneuve) values manners and decorum, but her bitterness towards others is quick to express itself. Suzon (Virginie Leydon) is in the flush of first love, and thus the envy of her younger, tomboyish sister, Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier). Grandmother Mamy (Danielle Darrieux) drinks and whinges in her wheelchair. Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) is a smouldering chambermaid, while Mrs Chanel (Firmine Richard) is a warm, black housekeeper. And just at the most upsetting moment, in waltzes Marcel's free-spirit sister, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant).
In the grand tradition of melodrama, Ozon sharply characterises each of the women in stark contrast to all the rest (the credits even associate each of the actors with a particular type of flower), and then sets them upon each other in various duels of attraction and repulsion. The ensemble work of the cast is extraordinary.
The film's humour is splendidly zany. It works itself up to the point where each new backstory revelation is more outrageous, mind-spinning and amoral than the last. Ozon cherishes the kind of story line which allows his characters to suddenly metamorphose, either in character or appearance. The most spectacular turnabout of this kind is reserved for Isabelle Huppert, who plays the prim, virginal, neurotic Aunt Augustine.
Few films are more richly and carefully stylised than 8 Femmes. It is a musical, in which each character gets to perform a turn, singing numbers derived essentially from French television variety shows. Brilliantly, Ozon plays upon the ambiguous status of address in musicals. Who exactly are the characters singing to: each other, themselves, or us? In this context, Chanel's soliloquy song about living alone carries an especially poignant force.
Whether engaged in song and dance, high farce or gothic melodrama, these characters are all heading towards the same thing: a stripping down of defences and masks, an unveiling of their true selves. When, in the final shot, all the characters turn to face Ozon's camera, this crowning moment of exhibitionism is sublime.
I know nothing of Ozon's biography, but it is impossible to watch 8 Femmes and not remember David Thomson's warm words about Pedro Almodóvar – that his "sweeping tributes to women make you wonder if God didn't mean the movies to be gay". (1) Indeed, an all-female premise is one that has regularly attracted gay artists, from George Cukor to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose play Water Drops on Burning Rocks was filmed by Ozon in 2000).
8 Femmes draws out another, closely related aspect of this artistic tradition: the worship of artifice, and the discovery of a strange, tender emotion within even the campest, most exaggerated situations. The result is a truly terrific film.
© Adrian Martin December 2002
1. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Fifth Edition (Hachette Digital, 2010).