After bringing a performance out of Charlotte Rampling in Under the Sand that even she might not have realized she had in her, the French writer-director Francoise Ozon has taken a handful of his country's biggest female stars and stuffed them into a candy box. 8 Women is meant to be a sampler with the likes of Deneuve, Darrieux, Huppert, Ardant and Beart as its treats. But the confectioner has arrived at pretty poison.
Oh, if you've seen Cukor's The Women umpteen times and adore the most chi-chi soap operas and musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, 8 Women might be just the right cup of cafe au lait. Ozon has taken a crime play from the early 1960s and turned it into a deliberately stagey movie musical, set in the 1950s.
Catherine Deneuve plays the epitome of the haute bourgeois woman. She has married well, raised two daughters and persuaded her husband to house (and to put up with) her materialistic mother, Danielle Darrieux, and her bitter, spinster sister, Isabelle Huppert. Fanny Ardant is Deneuve's racy sister-in-law, and Emmanuelle Beart and Firmine Richard the family servants.
The action starts when Deneuve arrives home with her elegant older daughter, Virginie Ledoyen, who's on Christmas break from her London school. Deneuve's high-spirited younger daughter, Ludivine Sagnier, soon breaks into a song about how Daddy is not with-it any more. Actually, he lies knifed to death in his bed.
What ensues is wintry camp in every sense. The only suspects are the members of the household, and they all wind up stuck in the family's country home during a blizzard. The light of suspicion that falls on each of them is meant to function as a spotlight for each actress, who gets to croon a tune explaining her true character and engage in catfights.
But Ozon turns even the ingenues into irksome grande dames, whether they're shooting a gun or wrestling on the floor or exclaiming insults and injuries in high dudgeon. Ozon thinks he can make all this fetchingly funny by exaggerating the artificiality not merely of the set and costumes but also the dialogue and song-making. What a miscalculation!
The most rococo MGM musicals had glide to them. Ozon is so clunky about staging the dialogue with theatricality and treating the songs as big-deal numbers that the movie lurches between stasis and hyperactivity. You see him sloppily load up for entertainment that never comes. He's like a half-cocked martinet ordering his cast and us to have some fun.
Even when they do have fun, we don't. Huppert getting super-abrasive, Ardant growing all femme fatale-istic, and Deneuve doing a dry-ice smolder - what they deliver is self-caricature. Critics are not supposed to reveal any of the characters' "secrets"; let's just say they revolve around various sexual and family subplots or what Fifties moralists would consider sin, vice and perversion. By the end we're supposed to view the ensemble as "survivors."
8 Women would probably be a looser, giddier salute to show-biz ideas of femininity if it were performed by eight drag queens.
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Beart
Directed by Francoise Ozon
Released by Focus Features
Rated R (some sexual content); in French with English subtitles
Time 113 minutes
SUN SCORE * 1/2