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With: Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Isabelle Huppert, Ludivine Sagnier, Danielle Darrieux, Virginie Ledoyen, Firmine Richard, Fanny Ardant
Written by: Marina de Van, Francois Ozon, based on a play by Robert Thomas
Directed by: Francois Ozon
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 111
Date: 01/08/2002

8 Women (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Facing the Music

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Fran´┐Żois Ozon seems to like testing us. Every time he grinds out a newfilm, it's 180 degrees from the last one.

His 1998 film Sitcom pleased me to no end; it was a very dark, very funny spoof of a happy nuclear family -- complete with incest and giant rats. His mesmerizing follow-up, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, was less funny and more emotionally engaging, based on an early Fassbinder play and full of his tragic texture.

Last year's Under the Sand was more problematic. I seem to be the only writer in the world who found its premise weak, its treatment cold and its lead performance (by Charlotte Rampling) lacking. In my review, I wondered if a more passionate, more deeply rooted actress like Isabelle Huppert could have filled the role better.

Now, here is Huppert, along with half of the French Actor's Equity in Ozon's new film 8 Women. One critic whom I admire (and who loved Under the Sand) called 8 Women Ozon's worst film, but I think it's one of his best.

8 Women can be easily described right off the bat as a comedy-musical-murder mystery, but that's not giving it enough credit. Ozon begins with an exterior tracking shot; probably the only exterior shot in the film, except that it's obviously a painted backdrop on a sound stage. He's offering us a clue that this is no fantasy. He's about to blow the lid off of idea of movie stars' perfect lives.

It's the dead of winter, the ground is covered with snow, and we're about to enter a great big full-color house full of servants and women of three generations. The matriarch Mamy (Danielle Darrieux) naps in her wheelchair as her daughter, Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), and granddaughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) arrive for Christmas.

Gaby's spinster sister Augustine (Huppert) descends the grand staircase, and Suzon's bouncy young teenage sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) bounds down as well. The two maids, matronly Chanel (Firmine Richard) and blonde, beautiful Louise (Emmanuelle Beart) bring tea and cookies and whatnot. That makes seven.

Before long, little Catherine leads a rousing Buddy Holly-esque number about how her father, Marcel, is still sleeping (with Gaby and Suzon singing backup). Marcel may be sleeping now, but soon he will turn up dead. Murdered. And, to paraphrase from Plan 9 from Outer Space, it's apparent that someone in the house is responsible.

By the way, the eighth woman does eventually show up. She's Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), Marcel's sister, who has been banned from ever visiting the house. And each woman, including Pierrette, gets her chance at leading a new song.

Based on a play by Robert Thomas (1927-89), Ozon and co-screenwriter Marina de Van unfold the mystery expertly, and even I was unable to correctly guess who the killer was. Each suspect has some dark reason for hiding what they were doing the night of the murder. And as each reason is carefully revealed, we realize that we're not visiting the squeaky-clean world of Agatha Christie or Gene Kelly.

I guess that's really not much to base a movie on, but when we're having this much fun, and gazing at the very best bunch of actresses France has to offer (except maybe Juliette Binoche or Audrey Tautou), who cares?

It probably helps to know that Ozon is openly gay and has probably decided to make his George Cukor film, a bitchy masterpiece similar to The Women (1939), with a touch of Vincente Minnelli thrown in for good measure. You can almost see him behind the camera, rubbing his hands together in sinister glee, channeling a million ideas and laughing his butt off.

Ozon is so fascinated by his eight women that he doesn't even bother to show us Marcel's face. But I will mention that he is played from behind by Dominique Lamure.

Indeed, this Ozon comes much closer to the nasty little prankster that I liked so much with Sitcom. You get the feeling that he's more closely watching our reactions in the audience than he is the action on screen. He's a button-pusher, which leads me to believe that either I was the only one who did not fall for his Under the Sand trick, or I was the only one who did.

One thing is for sure: I fell madly for 8 Women.

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