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8 Women (FranÁois Ozon) 2002
Reportedly, French director FranÁois Ozon intended to follow up his successful Under the Sand with a remake of George Cukorís 1939 catfight The Women, but was unable to secure the rights to do so. That hardly stopped him, however. 8 Women, his new musical comedy / whodunit, opens with a credits sequence thatís heavily influenced by Cukorís effort, substituting that movieís parade of different animals alongside each cast memberís name for a parade of flowers that reflect their personalities. The similarities to The Women donít extend too deeply however. Like The Women, 8 Women has an all-female cast (though there is one man seen on screen, he has no lines), but the end result feels wildly different, mostly because of the shift in genre. The Women seemed to approximate the point of view of its female cast. 8 Women instead takes the stance of a great, male admirer of women. The stunt casting of some of the top actresses in French cinema is at once exhilarating (you feel worlds are colliding) and frustrating (youíre almost always aware of the starís persona). You never get the sense that weíre being given access to the female psyche while watching it, which was notably a feeling that you couldnít escape during Under the Sand. The observations of the movie mostly seem to stop with the purportedly fascinating revelation that all women house secrets behind the exterior that they project.
Of course, such a message makes sense in a murder mystery, and when taken as an example of its genre 8 Women is easily as satisfying as anything produced in the last ten years, but itís the technical delights of the movie that gave me the most pleasure. The ornate, set-bound production design owes a debt to the work of Douglas Sirk, and in many respects Ozon does a better job than Todd Haynes (director of this seasonís other extended homage to the director, Far From Heaven) in aping the rhythms and look of Sirkís films. Colors remain lush throughout and the wonderful costumes and hairstyles define the ladies that wear them. From the very start of the film, weíre tipped off that secrets lurk behind the walls of the mansion when a closet is revealed from its wallpaper camouflage. Compositionally, Ozon is working at peak levels, and thereís a lot of pleasure just from watching the inventive ways he arranges his actresses when he attempts to squeeze as many as possible into the frame. Frankly, I felt there was enough going on artistically before the film launched into its musical sequences that when they arrived, I was usually let down. Itís not exactly that they are jarring, but they feel a bit gimmicky and obligatory at times, especially when compared with the high caliber of the rest of the film.
When all is said and done, however, 8 Women is a sheer delight. The series of revelations that define this filmís plot initially feel like a laundry list of family dysfunction, but eventually make the picture so contrived that its contrivances become half of the fun. The performances are all excellent, with special mention going out to Isabelle Huppert, who demonstrates genuine comic flair without ever sacrificing the intensely smoldering emotion thatís defined most of her best work. Her high-strung Augustine steals every scene sheís in, mostly because she usually seems to be acting in a different, more exaggerated film than the rest of the cast. Without the ensembleís confidence in her performance, it might have been a wreck, but due to their deference it works brilliantly. Every seemingly insignificant, color-coded fragment of the pictureís makeup coheres into a satisfying whole (though the Sapphic sexuality that bubbles up with alarming frequency might be a bit much).
* * * 1/2