Wednesday, March 30, 2011

8 WOMEN (8 FEMMES) 2002

Every now and then, if you're lucky, you come across a film that so nails your particular tastes and fancies that it feels as if someone had snuck into your dreams and extracted a fragment of your psyche. Take George Cukor's The Women, cross it with Agatha Christie, throw in a dash of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, and you get 8 Women: an intoxicatingly charming cinematic confection aimed directly at the heart of a nostalgia-prone film fan like me.

This Gallic homage to the days of the Hollywood "woman's picture" stars a galaxy of France's greatest actresses in a musical comedy murder mystery that doesn't just tease camp, but envelopes it in a loving embrace.
Danielle Darrieux: Would she kill her husband just because he was too perfect?
Catherine Deneuve: Would she kill her husband just to run off with a lover?
Isabelle Huppert: Would she kill a man just because he resisted her advances?
Fanny Ardant: Would she kill a man just for money?
Emmanuelle Beart: Would she kill her employer?

Virginie Ledoyen: Would she kill the man who betrayed her?

Ludivine Sagnier: Would she kill to protect someone?
Fermine Richard: Would she kill to hide a secret?
It's Christmastime in the 1950s and eight wildly divergent women, each with a conventionally dark secret, are trapped by a blizzard in an isolated chateau in the French countryside. The sole male resident of the household has been discovered with a knife sticking out of his back and it is up to the women to discover, through bouts of hysteria, temperament, deceptions, and revelations, the identity of the culprit. That this house should harbor more secrets than a game of "Clue" is no surprise. That the film (directed by Francois Ozon and adapted from a play by Robert Thomas) so playfully and effectively balances the at-odds genres of musical, melodrama, and mystery...well, that's a marvel.

I am just crazy about the way this film looks. The phrase "eye candy" was invented for movies like this. Sporting art direction seemingly inspired by an exploded petit four factory and a color palette taken from a drag queen's makeup case, 8 Women is one sumptuous viewing experience. The rich, hyper-vibrancy of the cinematography intentionally harkens back to the 50s Technicolor melodramas of Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk, while the tailored, color-specific costuming recalls the glory days of Edith Head and the Hollywood studio system. A system that demanded that stars look like stars no matter the requirements of the script. 
Deneuve & Beart face off...and look fabulous doing so!
And speaking of stars...WOW! You can seriously overdose on glamour and all-around gorgeousness here. I mean, the sight of Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant on screen at the same time is enough to make a person's eyes fall right out of their head. Ranging in ages from 21 (Sagnier) to 84 (Darrieux), it's striking to see that the smooth, unlined prettiness of the younger stars can't hold a candle to the kind of sensual beauty that age and experience add to a woman's face.
Ardant & Deneuve in the cat-fight of the century!

It shouldn't be the cinema anomaly that it is, but one of the more satisfying things about 8 Women is that after taking the trouble to assemble a first-class cast of iconic French actresses, Ozon actually shows off each to her best advantage and allows them to play to their strengths. Consequently, the entire cast is consistently firing on all cylinders and the film fairly crackles with electricity and star-quality in each scene. (My head still aches from the lost, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of 70s icons Robert DeNiro, Barbra Streisand, and Dustin Hoffman teamed for...Meet the Fockers???? Heaven wept!)
 Anyhow, all the actresses in 8 Women are a joy. Super serious Isabelle Huppert proves to be a wonderfully wacky comedienne; Fanny Ardant, heat personified, is intelligent and earthy; Deneuve wittily sends up her own icy screen image; and French legend Danielle Darrieux has a marvelous way with a reaction shot. You really have to watch the film at least twice: once for the subtitles and plot, a second time just to watch the faces. Possibly even a third time, just to pick up all the inside film references (like Emmanuelle Beart's maid costume - down to the kinky, lace-up boots - paying homage to Jeanne Moreau in Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, or Ledoyen's Audrey Hepburn bangs).
Spinster aunt Augustine's response to being asked why she was up at 3am cleaning her comb!
The previously wheelchair-bound, sympathy-milking grandmama suddenly reveals she can walk.

More difficult than catching lightening in a bottle (and twice as foolhardy) is to attempt to create intentional camp. Camp is a cultural phenomenon easily identified but notoriously resistant to commodification. At its worst its like a comic who ruins the punchline by cracking up at his own joke. At it's best, its feels like something that comes from a place of gentle affection and nostalgia. The stylistic excesses of 8 Women are so funny because its so clear that the director is so fond of them.
Each of the actresses is given her own musical number. Here the exquisite Fanny Ardant channels Rita Hayworth

Old-style Hollywood films were peerless at using the hyper-reality of the cinema to emphasize real-life issues. All manner of otherwise objectionable material was made digestible if the leading lady was suffering in mink and her surroundings were plush.
8 Women is not out to make any big social statements, but there are a great many smart, feminist underpinnings behind the ingeniousness of taking the structurally rigid genre of the murder mystery and having that serve as the environment in which repressive gender roles of the 1950s are stylistically juxtaposed with the artifice of old-fashioned Hollywood. A perfect melding of style and content.
The late, great Romy Schneider makes a surprise appearance as the 9th woman.

In this age of remake mania, it's impossible to watch 8 Women and not fantasize about who might be cast in an American remake. My mind goes to the actresses I grew up with: Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset, and Julie Christie. Unfortunately, I suspect that the brain-numbing awfulness that was  the 2008 remake of The Women (the film Ozon initially wanted to do) may have forever killed any interest in an American version of this utterly beguiling, utterly original film.
On the plus side, my enjoyment of 8 Women at least sparked an interest in seeing these great actresses in other films. A decision that introduced me to a 35-year old Danielle Darrieux in Max Ophul's masterful The Earrings of Madame de...,  and Catherine Deneuve in Truffaut's sentimental The Last Metro, among others. Seeing all of these actresses in the many different roles they've played over the years only makes me appreciate more the depth and breadth of talent they bring to 8 Women, and grateful for how this film pays such loving tribute to them.

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. and then there was the kiss.... which made me nearly explode and melt at the same time, and you would think because of who kissed - but it only had a small play in my reaction. That moment was filmed with such sensitivity, and the music (ohhhhhh, the music) - at its most passionate surge in the entire score - sweeps the viewer into an intoxicated release of emotions. Even the camera angle, the position - ah everything involved made that moment one of the best onscreen kisses i have ever seen in film.

    i noticed you left that part out, because it is such a delicious surprise, so if i've posted a spoiler comment, you can delete it! but i just couldn't keep my mouth shut!!!

    thank you for writing about this, you do it so beautifully!

  2. Ah, that kiss!! You're right ...I avoided mentioning it on purpose. But not out of fear of including a spoiler (I do that all the time). I had intended to post a screen capture of the kiss and write about (as you so aptly put it) that very "delicious surprise," which I agree is one of the BEST cinema kisses ever. Unfortunately the image looked too sensational and I couldn't bear to think of someone fast-forwarding through this jewel box of a movie just to get to a moment that should bring a gasp and inspire a reaction similar to what you described. I think you wrote about it well in your comment— you never divulge WHO is involved in the kiss! Thanks so much for reading and responding. You sound like a true lover of film.

  3. I loved this movie too! I had seen a trailer but (thankfully) it was not at all revealing, so I thoroughly enjoyed all the surprises it had to offer. I think what drew me to actually watch it was, as you talked about, the color palette and the 50s look of the film.

  4. @ Anonymous
    Yes, the look of this film is incredible, and everybody should have the fun of discovering the film's many surprises for themselves. I have yet to see the film "Potiche" 2010)which reteamed Deneuve with Ozon. I'm looking forward to it. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  5. Adore what you wrote about this fantastic film, which I have on my watch list this december. (I decided to make it a 'Musical December' and of course I will include my "8 Femmes" DVD! It is such a treat in every thinkable way.

    I have only seen this entry but I think I should love your blog! Greets from Austria, Eva Mary

  6. Hi Mary Milliner, and thanks for visiting my blog! I like your idea of a Musical December, and "8 Femmes" makes for great cold-weather viewing! It is full fof surprises, but after the surprises have been discovered, there are still somany things to enjoy (performances, dialog, music) about this film.

  7. Have you seen the film Far From Heaven ? Based on what I've read in your previous reviews I think you'd enjoy the modern homage to Douglas Sirk.

    1. Hi Anon
      That's very thoughtful (and perceptive)of you to recommend "Far from Heaven". I have seen the film several times and, as you rightly imagine, thoroughly loved how it paid tribute to and updated the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Very impressed how it managed to be faithful to the Sirk aesthetic and never veered into camp. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Ken, You've captured the sensibility of this unusual and glorious film beautifully. I adore it. I had not thought of Sirk - whose "All That Heaven Allows" I am addicted to (much as I think the Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman roles might've been better cast) - but you are right. Am also a fan of "Far From Heaven" and wish some movie channel or theater would double-bill it with "All That Heaven Allows" some day - such a gorgeous, color-drenched, melodrama-fest it would be.

    1. Hello Eve (if I may be so bold)
      So nice to hear from you and thanks for reading so many of my posts in one sitting! I'm glad to hear you're a fan of this film as well. I like your double bill idea...I'm sure many fans of "Far from Heaven" have never seen an actual Douglas Sirk movie on the big screen. My favorite is "Written on the Wind." The odd pairing of Hudson/Wyman has prevented me from seeing "All That heaven Allows." It being such favorite of yours, maybe I should give it another look!

  9. Hello Ken,

    Each time I see this film there is so much I don't remenber from the last time I watched it. This film has so many details that escape someone like me that has to read the subtitles instead of looking at the marvelous faces of the actresses. I love the homage to Romy Schnieder!! My favourite character is the little sister and I laugh so much everytime at the spinster aunt!

    Have you ever thought of writing a movie script? It seems you would know what ingredients to put into one. It's interesting what you write about intentional camp. Do you know any movies that tried too hard to be campy, instead of letting the audience decide on that?


    1. Hello Wille
      I think one of the main reasons I've seen this film so often is that, like you, I have to read the subtitles and I miss all the wonderful bits of business going on with the actresses. I've longed for an English dubbed version but figure they can never get voices to do justice to these performances.
      There is indeed a lot to take in when seeing this film, and each time I look at it, I also find new things I've never seen. I like your choices for favorite characters!

      I tried my hand at writing a movie script back in college and it was really quite awful, if I do say so myself. However, the weird thing about Hollywood today is that something being "awful" is no guarantee that you can't get someone to green light it. I recently saw a clip for an Adrian Brody film with Lindsay Lohan - seriously the bottom of of the barrel stuff-but it got financed, filmed, and found a distributor. This while some truly worthwhile screenplays and projects languish in development. Hollywood I suppose has never really made sense.
      The only movies that come to mind that I've seen that have tried too had to be camp are: "Shock Treatment" the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It has great music but it never gels and feels too self-conscious. Then there's"Die! Mommie, Die!", a spoof by drag artist Charles Busch that is never as funny as it thinks it is. Probably the worst of the lot is a spoof (yet another) of 70s films titled, "Viva," that proves that you can only spoof something when you're capable of doing better.
      Intentional camp requires wit and a vision. "8 women" has both. Thanks for commenting, Wille!

    2. Hopefully the Brody-Lohan film is so bad that it will turn into camp after, say, 10 years. Sometimes time is changes people's perception of what is hip and cool and films like that can only be laughed at later for being so dated.

      Thanks for your examples of intentional camp. I SO want to like "Shock Treatment" everytime I see it. It would have been great with a good follow-up after "Rocky". I may check out "Viva". I think I once saw a still from it and it seemed to be colourful in a crazy 70's way. But the plot might not be good.


    3. Yeah, I REALLY want to like "Shock Treatment" as well, but each revisit leaves me with that flat feeling I can't quite put my finger on.
      Check out "Viva" and let me know what you think. Humor is so personal and I just may not appreciate it. It is certainly colorful. I do recommend "Dinah East" if you can get your hands on it. I LOOOOVE that movie and need to write about it soon. A 70s relic I only saw about two years ago. It's a hoot from start to finish!

  10. I must see "Dinah East" -sounds great! I love it when I hear about obscure movies from 60s and 70s that I've never heard of before!


  11. So I FINALLY saw this film first thought as I saw the titles was, "Well, SOMEBODY's seen a lot of Douglas Sirk films!" Glad to see I was right on the money there. You're right, everyone looks faaaaahbulous, and I concur with your assessment that the beauty of older women is superior to that of young gals (despite how we're barraged 24/7 with the message that being young and thin is the only acceptable standard of beauty. I did observe that all of the actresses were industry-standard skinny, but being a size 16/18, I always notice that). Having some life experience really does make a lot of people look better. Throughout the movie I kept looking at Danielle Darrieux and thinking about what she looked like in her youth, and how great bone structure is essentially timeless--even at 100! Hey, how great would it be to witness a conversation between Darrieux and Olivia de Havilland?! They'd be dropping the wisdom bombs left, right, and sideways!

    I especially loved Isabelle Huppert's glamorous transformation, because I'm a sucker for ugly duckling stories--probably because that's been my story as well. Attending school reunions is always like having a secret identity, because most of my former classmates don't recognize me, and it's not just due to the absence of brown hair and glasses. (I can even tweet you proof!) Though Huppert is another one with killer bone structure; even when presented as the frumpy, grumpy aunt, the glasses and hairstyle couldn't really obscure the beauty beneath them.

    Of course I loved the art direction and costuming too. Why wouldn't I?! It so wonderfully evoked the 1950's aesthetic, right down to the makeup, shoes, and bullet bras! As Edith Head tributes go, it's right up there. Mind you, I wasn't okay with the only woman of color playing a servant, but at least Firmine Richard's Miss Chanel was just as intriguingly multifaceted as all the other characters. (That kind of stereotyping--or the absence of nonwhite people altogether--is something else I always notice nowadays, in addition to the mandatory skinniness thing--such as how award show red carpet photos seem like an assembly line of big-headed skeletons.)

    Anyway, I'm glad I saw this film, and equally glad you had this excellent blog post (like you have any that AREN'T excellent?! Nope, nary a one!) so I could ramble on about it here. Thanks, Ken!

  12. Yay!! So glad you finally got around to this.
    And your observations are as sharp as the cinematography. I like how you take note of the age/beauty thing (I think the film showcases a nice balance of mature and youthful allure); the issue of weight (Deneuve is fleshier and more womanly than most American actresses allow themselves to be, many of the women are movie thin, but it's nice that even the heavier Richards is afforded a sex life/drive); and the race issue (again, I like that Richard is in a period-specific role as household staff, but given a desire and agency of her own).
    It's a fabulous cast, and you seem to have taken in all the pleasures offered by this colorful movie. From costuming to character, I enjoyed reading what you thought of this film.
    I too am a sucker for ugly duckling transformations. Huppert's is both amusing and appropriately startling.
    thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I'm glad this very old post inspired you to check out one of my favorite films!
    Thanks, Lili!