31 May 2005 | wglenn
A Playful Romp with Great Actresses
8 Femmes is a playful mystery/musical/dark comedy that hearkens back to Jacques Demy's Parapluies de Cherbourg, which also starred Catherine Deneuve, and Demoiselles de Rochefort, in which Danielle Darrieux and Deneuve played mother and daughter. The story stars off as a classic tale of murder in a closed room of an isolated mansion, and all of the eight women become suspects. As the various clues and revealed secrets begin to pile up and become more and more absurd, however, it becomes clear that the mystery is secondary to exploring the various kinds of relationships that exist between these women and the way they have all been affected by their relationships (or lack of relationships) with men, especially the man who has been killed.
The mystery is also secondary to having a good time, which everyone seems to be doing. One of the main strengths of the movie is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. The director and all of the actresses seem to be enjoying themselves so much that a sense of fun radiates throughout the film. Ozon uses laughter and black humor, however, to investigates the pain, rivalry and joy that arise between mothers and daughters, pairs of sisters, sisters-in-law, women servants and their mistresses, and women in love with other women. It's a grand buffet of fine acting and difficult to pick out the best of the bunch - all eight women are wonderful - but Isabelle Huppert steals a number of scenes (hard to do in that company) with the most over the top and unexpected performance. Each woman has great moments, however, sometimes of tenderness, sometimes of hilarious bitchiness, and once in a while, of sudden and intense emotional revelation. The songs that each one sings give a bit of insight to their characters and add to the overall fun of the film, but they also present dramatic challenges to the actresses, and all of them do well in making these musical numbers work.
It's great to see Darrieux again, and she does an excellent job as the matriarch of the clan who seems to be a frail and loving old grandmother at first but then pulls one surprise after another. The funniest bit in the film, a wicked moment of black comedy, involves an argument between her and daughter Gaby (Deneuve) that ends in shocking and unladylike violence. The song chosen for Darrieux to sing at the end, a haunting and poignant piece written by French poet Louis Aragon and the great singer-songwriter Geogre Brassens, pulls the film together emotionally in an unexpected way.
People expecting a straight mystery film may be disappointed in and confused by the film, and the American distributors haven't helped matters any by failing to mention on the back of the video box that 8 Femmes is a musical and a dark comedy as well. But for those viewers who have an open mind and are in the mood for a playful mystery with several great actresses, they should be greatly rewarded.