Film Review: Huit Femmes

Francois Ozon’s highly entertaining Huit Femmes (Eight Women) has just arrived in video stores in the U.S. The film reached U.S. theatres late last fall and drew a modest audience, though it was hugely popular in Europe and garnered 12 César nominations. Last Saturday night, when the Césars were announced, Huit Femmes did not take home a single award, standing by while La Pianiste took home seven Césars and other films such as Se Souvenir des Belles Choses and Etre et Avoir took home the other major awards. What happened? If I had to guess what happened, I would say that the mood was wrong for awarding a film that is, on the one hand, very light and retro and fun, but on the other hand, rather cynical and nasty. Those who have trouble with Francois Ozon for being too abrasive will not be won over by Huit Femmes, although he is clearly becoming more and more accomplished as a film director and craftsman. I saw the movie twice and liked it better the second time around when I knew what was going to happen. It is a film best appreciated for its technical story-craft and is only incidentally an acting showcase. The story is set in a French château in the 1950’s, where relatives have come to gather for the weekend. There is the master of the house, Marcel, and the eight women: his wife, her mother, their two children, his wife’s sister, his sister (who has recently moved to the country), the chambermaid and the cook. The mother and the wife’s sister are living with Marcel as the story opens, and the wife and children have just arrived for a visit. A few hours later, quel horror! Marcel is found murdered in his bed with a knife in his back. The only possible suspects are the women in the house, as a snowstorm has prohibited access to the house from the outside world. Who did it? Why did they do it? And is Marcel really dead? As the youngest sister and conspirator in chief in this movie, little Ludivine Sagnier as Catherine nearly steals the movie away from her legendary co-stars. The first song is hers, a snappy little number called Papa, T’es Plus Dans Le Coup, which is about how her father is clueless as to what is going on around him. This turns out to be a bit of foreshadowing. The movie takes off from there and slowly gets increasingly outrageous: the wife and Marcel sleep in separate beds, and the wife has been having an affair with his business partner; Marcel has been carrying on with the chambermaid; Marcel’s sister is blackmailing him and has been carrying on with his cook; and Marcel’s eldest daughter, of whom he was not the biological father, is pregnant with child by Marcel! The ending takes its own absurd twist and when Danielle Darrieux sings Il N’y A Pas D’ Amour Heureux at the very end, you realize that you have been treated to a dark French farce that you enjoy anyway because it has been so entertaining up to that point. The songs are memorable and Warner Music is in fact putting out the soundtrack to the movie, with the songs sung by the actresses who sing them in the movie. Each performance is memorable in its own way. Danielle Darrieux, who goes in and out of her wheelchair, gets smashed on the head with a bottle and gets stashed in a closet for the last 20 minutes or so of the movie, probably endures the most. Isabelle Huppert is probably the most over  the top, followed closely by Fanny Ardant. Virginie Ledoyen and Emmanuelle Beart are probably the most restrained in their roles. Catherine Deneuve and Firmine Richard are the most stoic but Catherine has her moments, most notably when she tells Isabelle Huppert that she is beautiful and rich and it is not surprising that Huppert envies her, since she is ugly and poor. The irony of that statement, though, is that Huppert herself in real life is from aristocratic heritage. Huit Femmes most closely resembles Ozon’s previous movie Sitcom in its tone. Viewers may find the movie too abrasive, too nasty toward women in parts and just too over the top. I personally think it is well done, scripted tightly, staged effectively as an adaptation of a play and deserved some recognition at the César awards. Those of us in the US can now see it for ourselves and make up our own minds about how we like it. Note: if you give it a spin in your DVD player and I think you should, there isn’t very much in the way of extras on the DVD. The one feature that is fun is the simultaneous captioning in English and Spanish from the original French, as there are some things in the Spanish translation that the English translation seems to miss. Copyright 2003 New Paris Media, LLC
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