François Ozon’s 8 Women is a tinkling jewel box of a film, but inside the gilded case is a lachrymose refrain and a corroded heart. Drop-dead pretty and confidently assembled, it’s a shameless, extravagant charmer — at first. As the film goes on, it goes deeper, too, until the bleak melancholia that lurks beneath the surface violently breaks through. Little wonder U.S. distributors chose not to release this Christmas-set musical during the holiday season.
A smash hit in its native France, 8 Women is certainly one of the most eagerly awaited arthouse films of the year, and deservedly so. The prolific Ozon, who was a barely known neophyte three years ago, has with a quick succession of well-received features barged his way into the top ranks of new French cinema. But it’s not his name that’ll get the cappuccino-sippers into the seats. This all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza is first and foremost an all-star showcase of Gallic glory. To wit: Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Danielle Darrieux, Virginie Ledoyen, et. al. (I guess Juliette Binoche was on vacation.)
Based on a play from the 1960s by Robert Thomas, 8 Women is a garden-variety drawing-room whodunit given a pomo makeover. Ozon traps his illustrious hen party in a secluded, snowbound manse. Perky Suzon (a virginal Virginie) returns home for winter break to find a household on the verge of chaos. Her patrician mother, Gaby (Deneuve), isn’t on the best of terms with her father — they’ve been sleeping in separate beds. Gaby’s spinster sis, Augustine (Huppert, stealing every scene), nurses a lovelorn heart. Meanwhile, Mamie (Darrieux) hides a drinking problem, while Pierrette (Ardant), Gaby’s estranged sister-in-law, makes an unwanted appearance. Standing on the sidelines are Louise (Beart) and Chanel (Firmine Richard), the house help, who both have secrets of their own. Then, there’s the matter of the dead body upstairs…
Punctuated by shrieks, catfights, and assorted histrionics, 8 Women initially comes across as a rollicking farce à la Almodóvar. Dysfunction may await Suzon’s return, but her younger sister, Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), greets her with a yé-yé musical number fifteen minutes in. Turning up the glamour dial to eleven, Ozon has his gaggle of divas each perform a French pop hit, with songs ranging from innocuous bubble-gum ditties to the sultriest torch ballads. The eight women shimmy and slink their way through the songs, providing the purest charge of pleasure yet to be had in any Ozon film.
But Ozon won’t let them — or us — off the hook so easily. His film may take place on a single snowy day, but it’s easy to imagine the lonely manor in a whirl of eternal snowfall, so deterministic is Ozon’s dark outlook. Anyone familiar with his oeuvre knows that there is little happiness to be had in this provocateur’s universe. In the way it echoes Ozon’s past films, 8 Women is the work of an auteur through and through. The dour diagram of need, deceit, abuse, and contempt recalls Water Drops on Burning Rocks; the sudden intrusion of violence harkens back to See the Sea and Criminal Lovers; the unexpected infringement of emotion in a placid bourgeois world calls to mind Sitcom and Under the Sand.
Abetting his chilly pessimism is a formal approach that insists on keeping its distance. Favoring stylized theatrics over naturalism, Ozon’s films have a cold, academic quality — like Fassbinder (whose play, Water Drops…, he adapted to film), he’s less concerned that audiences enjoy the text than critique it. 8 Women has the same analytic detachment, but the results are more bracing. For the first time, Ozon’s sensibility runs right up against the sensual pleasures of the star system and old-school cinema. The buoyant frissons of film love keep colliding with Ozon’s aloofness and his reproof of bourgeois vacuity. Part of the film’s fun is watching this dialectic play out.
All artifice and irony, 8 Women keeps Ozon’s formal m.o. intact, even as it amplifies the source material’s staginess. (There is not one exterior scene in the entire film.) Filmed in faux-Technicolor by Jeanne Lapoirie, the film unabashedly channels Douglas Sirk, the film’s obvious touchstone. Sirk famously trafficked in critiques of the middle class, wrapped in the safe packaging of mainstream entertainment. Ozon has appropriated the form, but there is little that is safe about his version. Calculated and perverse, 8 Women injects Ozon’s volatility into Sirk’s recondite aesthetic. Ozon doesn’t so much smuggle in his excoriations as pummel you with them.
Fassbinder once said, “Sirk has made the tenderest films I know; they are films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do.” That admission of misanthropy on Fassbinder’s part might apply to Ozon as well. Sirk’s cinema may inform Ozon’s, but there is little of Sirk’s compassion and empathetic sadness in the Frenchman’s films. Consistent as it is, there is also something rote about Ozon’s morose worldview. His subversions have sometimes verged on the predictable — a fatal failing for a provocateur.
8 Women‘s deflation of the bourgeoisie may also have a familiar quality, but there’s something else here too: a new immediacy, a piercing mournfulness. When someone toward the end sings, “There is no such thing as happy love,” the sentiment doesn’t feel merely fashionable or studied, as it sometimes does in Ozon’s other films — there’s true loneliness there. The line isn’t just a fitting capper to the film but avows a morbid manifesto as well.
Unlike Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, another contemporary gloss on the women’s picture, Ozon’s film is no simple ode to the fairer sex. 8 Women may be a tribute — to its influences, to its stars — but Ozon makes the film very much his own, employing a giddy form to get at the inequalities and unhappiness immanent in human relations. Sabotaging the happy play of color, song, and glamour with a deeply felt despair, Ozon has finally made his subversiveness genuinely surprising.