As warm and charming as Gosford Park was cold and smug, as colorful and fun as Robert Altman’s film was drab and boring, François Ozon’s “8 Femmes” is a delightful film for most of its length and a resounding victory of French over British sensibilities, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned. Gorgeous actresses and visuals abound, as do witty and biting dialogue and ever more outrageous twists and revelations.
Ozon has linked his movie with his childhood attraction to dolls, dressing and undressing them and putting them in all sorts of situations. Hence, “8 femmes” is a film populated with women of all ages and kinds. There is only one male character, man of the house Marcel (Dominique Lamure), but he’s murdered as the movie opens and even in flashbacks, we only see the back of his head! What Ozon is interested in is his “dolls”, and you can’t blame him! There’s Catherine Deneuve as Marcel’s pampered wife Gaby, Fanny Ardant as his “liberated” sister Pierrette, Isabelle Huppert, hilarious as the neurotic, never married Tante Augustine, Virginie Ledoyen as daughter Suzon back from college for the holidays, Ludivine Sagnier as the absolutely adorable if mischievous 16 year old Catherine, Danielle Marrieux as Marcel’s “alcoholic witch” of a mother-in-law, and Firmine Richard and Emmanuelle Béart as the not-so-discreet housemaids.
The film’s “doll house” is a big, lush mansion in which the 8 women and the male cadaver are stranded by a snowstorm. Adding to the theatricality is a nearly real-time narrative, predominant dialogue and musical numbers (!), but Ozon’s picture is very cinematic too, if old fashioned. He’s manipulated his images to recreate the look and feel of Technicolor, and the result is eye-popping and beautiful. The song and dance numbers are a mixed blessing, ranging from priceless (like Sagnier’s “Papa, t’es plus dans le coup”) to downright embarrassing (like Richard’s lament). Yet despite corny lyrics and unimaginative arrangements, making “8 Femmes” a musical on top of being a murder mystery and a comedy adds to the unpredictability.
The movie’s main pleasure is watching all these great actresses bickering and bitching each other, with all the old secrets and tensions finally coming to the surface. Everyone is suspecting everyone, and everyone’s got a different version of how things happened! Surprises abound, which is nice, but unfortunately Ozon doesn’t seem to know when to stop and it gets to be a bit much. By the end, the film loses nearly all plausibility, which I can accept if I take it as an anything-goes screwball comedy (which it sort of is), but Ozon seeks laughs AND drama, which doesn’t quite pan out. Still, these are only nitpicks, as “8 Femmes” as whole is a treat not to be missed, with a lot more hits than misses.