With 8 Women, French director Francois Ozon nearly captures the rich, melodramatic style of Douglas Sirk, who in the 1950s directed Technicolor soap operas of middle-aged women.
8 Women is a musical murder mystery in Sirk-esque style The sets are vivid and colorful with feminine palettes. The lighting is stagey and the exterior shots look studio-fake. Unfortunately, 8 Women falls short of Sirk’s standard.
8 Women begins innocently enough. Gaby (Catherine Deneuve) arrives home from the train station with her eldest daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen). Suzon is greeted by her little sister, her grandmother, Aunt Augustine (the great Isabelle Huppert), the maid, and the cook, making a total of 7 women.
When the family goes to get father, Marcel, they discover he has been murdered; stabbed in the back. Before long, Marcel’s sister arrives, making 8 women, all of whom are suspects.
Although an establishing shot shows a manse in winter with a deer nibbling ivy (probably a reference to Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows), the action is confined to a single location. It is essentially a filmed play.
A snowstorm and a sabotaged car guarantee nobody will leave the house. With Marcel’s corpse stiffening in the next room and with nowhere else to go, the women spend their day working on the mystery.
What keeps this movie going is that none of these women are saints. They each dislike some of the other women, and they each have at least one dirty little secret to keep. For example, Marcel’s sister says she just arrived this morning, but in fact the maid saw her last night. And what was the maid doing last night? She said was bringing tea to the monsieur, but Aunt Augustine knows she had a very different reason….
Each accusation reveals someone else’s lie, and out comes the pent-up jealousy, out come the dirty secrets, and out come the claws. If he weren’t dead already, Marcel would surely wish he were.
As the film proceeds, it gets more and more complex. After a while, all the secrets and accusations become tangled together in a baffling Gordian knot. Not a moment too soon the cook, who has solved the mystery, says “This nonsense has gone on too long. I’m talking.” The mystery is unraveled Agatha Christie style, putting a satisfying, ironic period at the end.
8 Little Songs
Amid all the chaos, Ozon finds time for 8 little songs.
A fan of the musical genre, I consider myself lucky to see one every few years. Moulin Rouge ruled 2001, and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You charmed me in 1996. Unfortunately, the musical is a lost art, and 8 Women proves it. I admire 8 Women for its attempt, but its musical numbers would never have cut it in the 1950s.
Each song is just a few minutes long. After a couple times through the chorus, the song ends, as abruptly as it began. Apparently, Ozon decided to save on production costs by including short numbers rather than long ones. The choreography also looks like it was done quickly and cheaply.
Earlier I said Ozon “nearly” captured Sirk’s style. That’s because Ozon doesn’t take his women seriously enough. 8 Women isn’t quite a farce, but it’s not meant to be taken too seriously, either. That costs the movie because it tries to get away with cutting corners.
Nevertheless, at the rate of one musical every couple years, I won’t complain too loudly about 8 Women. It’s a visual treat, even if it ultimately falls short.