8 Women (2002) / Mystery-Musical
aka 8 femmes
MPAA Rated: R for some sexual content
Running time: 111min.
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Virginie Ledoyen, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart
Director: Francois Ozon
Screenplay: Francois Ozon, Marina de Van (based on the play by Robert Thomas)
Review published September 25, 2002
Based on the play by Robert Thomas, 8 Women transcends the stage by becoming an homage to 1950s Hollywood films and the female archetypes within them, combining the glamour and conventions of that decade with the sensibilities of today. As a film, it's unique for crossing boundaries from one genre to another, starting off as a soap opera, introducing a murder mystery plot, breaking out into song-and-dance numbers, and a Hitchcockian directorial style (with Bernard Herrmann-esque music to boot.) With such shifts in tone and convention, it would be a tall order to pull off all of these elements and have a successful film. Does it succeed? Yes and no, depending on your expectations going in.
Marcel is a wealthy man is found face down in bed with a knife in his back one morning. Eight women are found to have been in the house during the evening where the event took place, but due to a snowstorm and the phone line being cut, they have no ability to inform the authorities and what's worse, they are all stuck in the house with no way to get out. They all have their suspicions as to who may have done it, and as the finger gets pointed from woman to woman, it's discovered that all had the motive and opportunity to commit the act.
This kind of murder mystery hasn't been done since...well, since last year with Robert Altman's Gosford Park. Calling up Robert Altman is also fitting since the events of one man completely surrounded by women, all vying for his love, attention and favor was done by Altman in another recent film, Dr T. and the Women. Of course, being based on a play, this is all purely coincidence, and the shifting genres make 8 Women a unique entertainment that both succeeds and fails all at the same time.
The film succeeds with excellent acting and wildly irreverent characterizations from the well-cast women. The direction by Francois Ozon (Sitcom, Swimming Pool) is inspired, giving the film a level of classiness and coolness that speaks to his deep level of knowledge in the films of the Fifties and Sixties. 8 Women is many things at once. Most of it is played for fun, and many viewers will enjoy the film for the wild and audacious romp it is intended to be.
However, sometimes with a film as ambitious as this, there's also great unevenness, and 8 Women's tone gets so strained at times that many scenes stray from uneven to just plain odd. There's a little too much flash here, so much so that it frequently gets in the way of the substance, and eventually things progress to the point that we no longer care about the mystery, it's actually quite boring whenever reverting back to it. In addition, the musical numbers make the film inspired, but they themselves are lackluster, with song-and-dance routines that are rather ham-handed and flat. Most of them only inspire smiles and chuckles because they seem so ridiculous, and even if that were the intent, we become accustomed to seeing them and aren't as excited with each repeated occurrence.
The same can be said for the film as a whole, as the fun is very infectious at first but begins to repeat itself as time goes on, and after the first half hour the film has basically showcased almost everything it has up its sleeve save for the expected lesbian undertones to finally emerge (another hearkening of Dr. T.) Just like a rollercoaster, its thrilling fun for the first go around, but with each successive lap around, we grow less excited until we ultimately have had our fill, content to ride it out to the conclusion and hoping it isn't too far in coming.
8 Women is recommended for those who love old films, musicals, mysteries, Hitchcock, French films, and most essential, something uniquely different. It's not recommended for everyone, as some people like conventional genres just fine and don't see the need to blend them to make them fun, and especially 8 Women's constant flirting with sexual undertones of adultery, incest, lesbianism and virginity that serve only to titillate instead of pushing the story, themes or plot. Don't go into it if you only want one thing, as it's not a great mystery, it's not a great romance, it's not a great musical, and it's not a great comedy. But as a heady mix of all four it's a great attempt, and also great fun at the same time.
©2002 Vince Leo