“Eight Women” is part Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, part homage to campy melodramas and musicals, and all artifice. In this quirky and unusual farce, French filmmaker Francois Ozon traps eight women in a mansion — where their beloved patriarch is murdered — and sits back to watch them solve the mystery and find the murderess among them. In a world where everyone has an alibi, they demonstrate how hell hath no fury like eight women scorned.
During Christmas break in 1950s France, Marcel, a successful businessman is stabbed in the back. Since a raging snowstorm outside prevents anyone from escaping, the perpetrator must be one of the women currently staying in his house. Consequently, each woman becomes a suspect, and over the next 113 minutes, each is attributed a motive.
Possible guilty parties include Marcel’s elegant wife Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), Gaby’s eldest daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), her youngest daughter Catherine (Ludvine Sagnier), their spinster aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), the mother-in-law (Danielle Darrieux), the insolent chambermaid (Emmanuelle Beart), and the cook Chanel (Firmine Richard). That accounts for seven of the women. But it’s the arrival of the eighth woman, Marcel’s seductive sister, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), that sends the others into hysteria — aggravating family feuds and instigating the revelations of dark secrets.
“Eight Women” is a tribute to Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas, as well as an homage to 1950s–style Vincente Minelli Hollywood musicals. Ozon employs typical conventions of these genres expertly. His mise-en-scene is highly stylized and surreal. The claustrophobic house in which all of the film is set resembles an artificial stage set, where walls are actually doors, and nothing is what it purports to be. In the grand tradition of melodramas, the film focuses more on superficial presentation than on meaning. This is demonstrated by strategic, perfectly composed frames and by background music that swells on cue implying that murder is afoot.
The most striking example of artifice is the acting itself. All eight women are performers, hiding something from each other and from the audience. Clad in lavish, color-coded costumes, they complement the saturated sets. As is customary in musicals, they burst into song as quickly and easily as they erupt into fights. So swings the tempo of the film, lurching from one extreme emotion to another. It is silly at first, but soon the banal quips shot back and forth between the women (“Greed will always be your demise!”) grow tiresome. The family secrets revealed throughout the film run the gamut of cliches — financial despair, adultery, alcoholism and even incest.
Tongue-in-cheek in tone, “Eight Women” is a modern film. The songs are awful, but they’re supposed to be. Despite the modern twists, however, the film seems dated and stale and is saved only by a few laughs. As the plot spirals into silliness, one can’t help but snicker. Although none of the leads are very interesting to follow, Isabelle Huppert deserves acclaim for her performance as the high-strung, straight-laced “resident viper,” aunt Augustine.
But even with its energetic bravado, colorful mise-en-scene, and modern sensibility, “Eight Women” is a static and tired film because of its cinematographic style. It is filmed as simplistically as one would film a play. Characters almost always face the camera, and Ozon captures each musical number without cutaways, usually in long takes of the actor’s full-length body. Drapes and windows usually frame the actors, and even come for a final curtain call, emphasizing the film’s theatrical nature.
In his toast to musicals and melodramas of the 1950s, Ozon succeeds in following the conventions of the genres, while sustaining a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards his farce, but “Eight Women” ultimately bores the audience. The film adds nothing new to the genre it mimics, nor does it offer an interesting comment or slant. Other films do a better job than what Ozon attempts with “Eight Women.” If you’re interested in a modern take on these classic genres, films such as Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” and “Clue” will greater satisfy the senses.