This delightful bon-bon of a movie joins hands with two other curios in my personal pantheon — Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant and Rouben Mamoulian’s The Gay Desperado — as musicals that I dearly love in spite of their having no very good or even very memorable songs. (Interestingly enough, director Francois Ozon deliberately evokes a scene from another Mamoulian picture, Blood and Sand, by having a woman reveal her true nature by unveiling the shocking red dress beneath her mundane outer covering.)
Musicals without good songs are, by necessity, operating under less than ideal circumstances, though that probably matters less here than it did in the other two films I mentioned, since 8 Women is pretty far removed from the realm of the traditional musical. Songs are presented more in the fashion of those in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class — comically achieved moments that are more a comment on the action than they are songs for their own sake. It doesn’t work as well here (the trick in The Ruling Class was the surprise appearance of familiar popular songs that became both amusing and strangely sinister in the context of the proceedings), though the idea is similar. In fact, most of the ideas in 8 Women are similar to other things — and that’s both the point and the delight of this strange confection, which can best be described as a highly theatrical musical-comedy version of Gosford Park, assembling a cast compromised of most of the great French film actresses of the past 70 years. And I mean 70 years, since the still-luminous Danielle Darrieux (now 85), who plays mother to Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Hupert’s characters in 8 Women, made her film debut in 1931!
Ozon’s movie has a peculiar genesis. Originally, the director wanted to do a new cinematic version of Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women, which was filmed in 1939 and again in bastardized form in the 1950s. The rights to the play, however, proved unobtainable, so Ozon fastened on another all-female work — an obscure play by French writer Robert Thomas. Considering that Ozon’s version of The Women was intended as a vehicle for Meg Ryan, maybe we ought to be grateful for his problem in securing rights. I’m not sure what the Ryan flick might have been like, but it certainly wouldn’t have been much like 8 Women, which is very clearly a movie made with movie lovers in mind.
The premise is perfection in its simplicity: Take some of the most famous and accomplished actresses in the history of French film and strand them in a picture-book country house with a corpse in an upstairs bedroom. On its own, this is nothing more than a clever Agatha Christie riff (the similarities to the The Mousetrap are hardly accidental) with a lot of star-power behind it. What sets it apart is the fact that 8 Women — much like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven — plays with film styles and conventions of an earlier, glossier era. In fact, Ozon and Haynes are mining much of the same territory by invoking the over-produced world of 1950s Douglas Sirk films, though to very different ends.
Ozon isn’t out to make any great point with 8 Women; he’s merely reveling in the look and feel of ’50s movies, taking their absurdities to ever-more-bizarre lengths. His is a playful film that delights in the conventions it parodies, on both the cinematic and plot level.
As the women’s whodunit investigation continues, more and more little (and not so little) secrets about each of them is revealed. In the world of 8 Women, everyone has something to hide, and as each secret is revealed, things become more deliberately over the top and deliriously decadent — this is Douglas Sirk as if he’d suddenly turned into Luis Bunuel.
Before the movie reaches its twisty-turny end, we’re privy to intrigues ranging from incest to embezzlement to adultery, from lesbianism to murder and beyond. It’s everything Sirk ever dreamed of all tied up in one single movie. It’s also a film that plays off its stars’ professional and private lives (witness the wrestling match — yes, wrestling match — between Deneuve and Ardant, who were both romantically involved with Francois Truffaut).
All of the performances are exactly the star turns you’d expect from this cast, but special mention should be made of the sheer outrageousness of Darrieux and Isabelle Huppert’s characterizations; these game turns are alone worth the price of admission.
If you love movies, if you love these luminous actresses and if you’re looking for something that’s just delightfully different, 8 Women is the movie for you. A word to the wise, however: The film will only be playing this week at the Fine Arts, so if you don’t want to miss it, get to the theater Wednesday or Thursday.