“8 Women” – A.J. Hakari

8 Women isn’t exactly what comes to mind when I think of French cinema. The existential works of Melville and Truffaut are what usually fill my thoughts, not a frothy and carefree affair with relatively simple goals. But don’t take this as a slam on the film’s overall quality. On the contrary, 8 Women is quite enjoyable, not to mention fairly busy. It resembles what would happen if Douglas Sirk and “American Bandstand” were in a head-on collision, ensuring viewers at home that they’ll be anything but bored.

Lovely young Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) has returned from school to spend Christmastime at her family’s spacious countryside estate. But no sooner has she set foot in the door when she’s greeted with some most unpleasant news: her father, Marcel, has been found dead with a knife in his back. Not only that, but the phone lines have been cut and the family car sabotaged. In no time at all, Suzon has switched into Sherlock Holmes mode, turning a questioning eye upon the seven other women currently residing in the house. Was Marcel done in by the seductive new chambermaid (Emmanuelle Beart)? Or was it the old family cook (Firmine Richard), who’s been carrying on with Marcel’s promiscuous sister (Fanny Ardant)? Suzon’s uptight aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert) is acting mighty shifty, and her kindly old granny (Danielle Darrieux) has some secrets of her own. Even her own mother (Catherine Deneuve) and rebellious sister (Ludivine Sagnier) remain suspects — although Suzon herself may just as easily be the culprit.

Obviously, 8 Women isn’t exactly big on plot. The story is your basic Agatha Christie scenario, with a season’s worth of soap opera storylines crammed in whether they fit or not. All it really has going for it is the “whodunit” angle, but director/co-writer Francois Ozon makes it clear that he doesn’t put terribly much stock in this department. His intention isn’t to construct a labyrinthine mystery to put The Usual Suspects to shame but to show viewers a good time and play a certain cinematic style to the hilt while he’s at it. Anyone who’s seen a corny ’50s melodrama in their day will find something to enjoy about 8 Women, for it evokes those pictures in a beautifully stylistic fashion. This is a movie where even the dowdiest of characters look like they put on their Sunday best, where glamour is the order of the day and where pretty people get caught doing some very bad things. If that weren’t enough, Ozon chucks some song-and-dance numbers into the mix, none particularly memorable but some quite catchy and revealing of the characters who belt them out.

Needless to say, 8 Women is a females-only affair. The one male cast member remains unheard and only seen obscured, leaving ample room for the ladies to engage in their own festival of catfights, accusations, and other forms of histrionic behavior. Thankfully, the entire ensemble knows that their collective shrillness is all in good fun, so as not to disappoint viewers by taking their shared cattiness too seriously. Each actress has a particular role to fill, and for the most part, they do so with loads of charm and efficiency. Half the fun of taking in 8 Women comes from witnessing the performers handle whatever curveballs the plot throws at them. Ledoyen stands out above the cast, exhibiting in one film more spunk and charm than most Hollywood starlets will reveal in their whole careers. Deneuve is nothing short of entrancing, and Beart has the sexpot act down pat. I didn’t care much for Huppert, though; even for a film that’s all about going all-out, she overdid her snobbish role to a fault.

I’ve seen 8 Women twice now, and I’ll admit, it lost a little something on that second viewing. The film’s inherent staginess wore on me a bit, and the ending, as ironic a twist as it is, is a puzzlingly solemn cap-off to a rather breezy picture. Nevertheless, I still got a great kick out of watching 8 Women, as I presume will even those American musical buffs put off by the subtitle factor.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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