8 Femmes : France 2002 : Francois Ozon : 103 mins
Spoofy murder-mystery farce 8 Femmes is what Gosford Park might have been like if John Waters and Jacques Demy had gotten their gaudy mitts on it. In a snow-bound mansion in 1950s France, teenager Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) tells her shocked family she’s found her ‘Papa’ dead in bed, apparently murdered. Everyone is a suspect – Catherine’s sister Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), their mother Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), Gaby’s sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), the dead man’s sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), her mother ‘Mamy’ (Dannielle Darrieux), even the maid Louise (Emmanuelle Beart) and housekeeper Mme Chanel (Firmine Richard). As the accusations (and fur) start to fly and the family’s various skeletons are dragged out of their closets the eight women find out more about each other, the deceased – and themselves – than they could ever have dreamt of.
Adapted from a half-forgotten play by Robert Thomas, 8 Femmes makes no attempt to hide its anachronistic atmosphere of amateur-dramatics, even with such a high-calibre cast. Indeed, Ozon positively revels in the camp-as-Christmas artifice of it all, right from the opening titles, picked out in lurid pink over a shot of an ornate chandelier. He even keeps stopping the action to allow each of his stars a musical number. Some of these are elaborate dance sequences, others are more controlled: among the countless in-jokes (film buffs should keep their eyes peeled for Romy Schneider) Huppert gets to revisit Piano Teacher territory when Augustine takes to the keyboard for a soulful lament. And the actress really is first among equals, showing her range by ripping into a rare comic opportunity: she even gets to model the widest variety of outfits when repressed spinster Augustine later lets her hair down and appears in opulent evening wear that puts even the hyper-glam Gaby in the shade.
Crucially, all the actresses – even the slightly hesitant Deneuve – seem to get what Ozon’s up to and go with the flow, with results that are often as least as fizzily enjoyable as anything in Amelie. As in Jeunet’s movie, there’s a slight, but perhaps inevitable, running out of steam towards the latter stages – Thomas’s play was presumably written with an interval, which we don’t get here. And there will no doubt be plenty of people who complain there’s nothing much going on beneath the surface of this delectable Gallic bauble, either: when asked if he’s illustrating how the 1950s nouvelle vague ‘bumped off’ the previous French cinematic traditions (often referred to as the ‘cinema du papa‘) Ozon’s response was a blank look. So it’s probably safe to say that whatever Sirkian/Fassbinderish social critique we may detect (all those shots of stuffed birds in cages!) is purely in the mind of the viewer alone. Likewise, it may be unwise to trace too direct a line of cause and effect from the removal of the only (heterosexual) male presence to the showstopping lesbian embrace that enlivens the latter stretches. But it’s fun nevertheless.
16th March, 2002
(seen 9th February, Berlinale-Palast, Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)
This film appeared in the Fipresci Selection 2001-2002 : click here for full list
by Neil Young
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