8 Women

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 10/14/02 05:32:51

"A technicolor orgy of confession, treachery and great costumes"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A smash hit in France, 8 WOMEN is now poised to ignite American audiences. Adapted from the play, 8 WOMEN has an ensemble cast of French icons, including Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve. The stylistic overtones borrows heavily from a late 1950’s visual vocabulary reminiscent of food advertisements in cookbooks, boasting Jell-O and Cool-Whip and women in starched pinafores and back-combed hair. The camera pans across impossibly romantic, sharp and colorful Technicolor scenes. The innocent styling could be either saccharine or ironic but ends up as comically sincere when the bright exterior peels back and generations of secrets begin to unravel as the women attempt to figure out who killed the master of the house, Gaby’s (Deneuve) Husband.

The story takes place in a country chateau in the middle of a snowstorm. The gothic arches and latticed windows add to the romance and the opening scene of a deer chewing on the snow covered branches just outside the drawing room window puts you right into a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale state of mind. Every prop, background and piece of fabric maintained that airy, childish, yet powerfully evocative simplicity.

Both light and dark, virginal and experienced, 8 WOMEN is an ecstatic free play of signs and signifiers. The visual cues of 1950’s American films are subverted and parlayed into a darker, more knowing French sensibility where sex and murder are just two things a woman eventually develops a philosophy about. What appears at first to be a comical and richly stylized whodunit turns into an orgy of confession and all the skeletons are marched out of the closet. Most of those skeletons have to do with sex and men, which comes as no surprise for a film about women.

Not only does the film have the gender divide to play with as well as variant sexuality, the film also has class distinction on its side to further enrich this tale of shadows and mirrors and complicated social arrangements. It was delightful to watch a film that is able to use its pretty face and its glamour to be pitiable and shocking and is no small feat for director François Ozon (Under the Sand).

You won’t even recognize Huppert. She has been completely transformed into a frigid old maid, Augustine. The film is full of so many delicious twists and turns that I don’t want to reveal too much by a plot synopsis. Instead, I offer you a sketch of the women.

Ardant plays the red-hot estranged sister, Pierrette, who represents the experienced woman unafraid to use her sex to get what she wants. Catherine (Virginie Ledoyen) is the 16 year old daughter who lives in a white and pink attic room filled with stuffed animals and fairy tales and is constantly derided for reading too many genre pulp novels. She runs around in Capris and represents the adolescent woman in her first push towards maturity.

Ludivine Sagnier plays Suzon, Catherine’s older sister just home from college who represents the first blush of full womanhood. Mamy (Danielle Darreux) is the matriarch, who looks down the generational road and understands what all women before her had to do and what all the women after her have to do. She has perfected her game and the subtle treachery that has enabled her to survive husbands and daughters and even time is now coming around to haunt her. And DeNeuve, as Gaby, is the mirror of Pierrette. The Good Girl to Pierrette's Bad Girl whose adversarial relationship turns into something more like the interplay of Yin and Yang. There is a little bit of the Bad Girl in the Good Girl and vice versa.

And then there is the “help.” The complex relationship between the classes in France becomes even more complicated. Madame Charnel (Firmine Richard) who raised Gaby’s daughters, is now having her morality scrutinized and Louise, the new maid, may not be from the servant class after all, and yet, she must maintain her “station.”

8 WOMEN is fresh, its new, its exciting. All the women, when you stand back far enough, begin to look like shades of gray in the archetypal woman. The relationships between women and power, women and sex, women and money, women and men, women and women and even women and clothes are all explored with much sagesse.

And surprise! It’s also a musical. I’ve never seen a movie where the saddest song about love is sung by the seemingly most hateful characters. Each woman has a song she sings that helps to clarify her personality and her personal difficulties. While Huppert’s and Ardent’s have a chanteuse quality you associate with French torch singers, most of them are playful and trite on the surface – like Ring Around the Rosy – but express deeper, sadder, more painful longings accompanied by little dance routines.

When Suzon and Catherine sing of early sexual experiences, they dance like jewelry box ballerinas. 8 WOMEN is constantly forcing us to look beyond the official face of femininity and feminine identity to find a universal, moving truth about the place women have had in society.

The delicate parlor games that hold these women’s lives together comes to an end as the pointing fingers and search for evidence digs up more than any of them bargained for. The search for the “truth” exposes not only the women, but the society and in the end, all the women come to an understanding of their roles and relationships and how much they’ve damaged each other and the man who has spent his life taking care of them financially. Is it too late for them to start again or are they now so far outside the boundaries they may as well throw away their Yves St.Laurent and take up with the bohemians in Montparnasse?

I wouldn’t be surprised if 8 WOMEN received an Oscar nom for Best Foreign Film. It certainly deserves all the recognition it gets for being clever, smart, fun with an engaging dark and deep core. MOSTLY MARTHA, the German film that has people talking Oscar would be up against a stiff competitor.

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