8 Women (2002)

97

We live in a world where 8 Women (French: 8 femmes) exists. If that isn’t a comforting thought, then I am not quite sure what is. The fact that I waited my entire life to watch this film is unbelievable and utterly wrong, and I regret not watching this film sooner. It is a film that is just so wonderful in absolutely everything it sets out to achieve – a stellar cast, beautiful production design and a deliciously dark sense of humor makes 8 Women one of the most incredible films I have ever seen, and one that I really am raring to watch again and again. If there was ever a film that leaped right into my all-time favorites, it is certainly 8 Women.

8 Women is set at Christmas in the 1950s. Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) returns home to her family’s home in France after studying in London. At the home are her mother Gaby (Catherine Deneuve) and her adorable sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), as well as her bitter spinster aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), and the “immobilized” matriarch, Mamy (Danielle Darrieux). Also at the home are Gaby’s servants – dedicated cook Chanel (Firmine Richard) and chambermaid Louise (Emmanuelle Béart). Their family festivities are brought to an abrupt end when the master of the house is found murdered in his bed. What follows is a delicate murder-mystery, that transcends genre. Joining them soon afterward is the sister of the victim, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant).

There is a multitude of reasons why I loved 8 Women, but above everything else, this film succeeds on the strength of its ensemble. It is composed, as the title truthfully states, of eight women, each one of them playing a vital role in the story, and having their own secrets. Each one is given a wonderful moment in the form of a song, and they have remarkable chemistry. Somehow, 8 Women manages to have a cast without a single weak link, with each of these ladies being absolutely astounding – each one equally strong and memorable.

In a cast composed of some iconic French cinematic villains, you could be forgiven for thinking that the two youngest cast members would be the weakest link – but they were far from it. Perhaps they were the least compelling, but there was absolutely nothing weak about their performances in the least. The film seems to be centered, from the outset, on Virginie Ledoyen’s Suzon as she returns home from university. She brings along a boatload of secrets, and her homecoming is revealed to be far more than just a family visit. Perhaps her character is the most underwhelming, but she has some wonderful moments, especially her big revelation – which I actually found to be the only loose end that this film had, with the shocking revelation never mentioned again.

Contrasting her is Ludivine Sagnier, who is just so adorable and endearing as the youngest daughter. Their songs are both notable for being so different, and contrasting them, one can see very different themes being portrayed – in Sagnier’s upbeat and energetic “Papa t’es plus dans le coup”, she shows the struggle of being young and longing to be seen as an adult, whereas Ledoyen’s “Mon Amour, Mon Ami” shows the pain of growing up before one’s time. They may not be the reason to see this film, but Sagnier and Ledoyen are fantastic and hold their own against a more experienced ensemble of veterans.

Firmine Richard is perhaps the heart of the film – playing the purest and sympathetic character in the film. It is through Richard’s performance as Chanel that we manage to see the social messages the film is trying to convey – as the only black character in the film, she is already an outsider – and a major revelation that she prefers the company of women only proves to allow the film to comment on the social climate at the time, a struggle that still exists to this day in some way. Richard gives this performance her absolute best effort, and it results in something absolutely compelling. In a film filled with elaborate, outright hilarious performances, Richard’s more sedate and calm portrayal of a conflicted woman is a stark contrast, but it just adds to the emotional heft of the film, as does her song, where she sings about the inner turmoil she feels and longs to break free from the societal shackles she finds herself in.

If we are talking about veterans in this film, we can’t neglect Danielle Darrieux. Darrieux is perhaps the very definition of the elder stateswoman of French cinema – an icon if there ever was one. It astounds me how seemingly limitless her talents are, and in 8 Women, she combines everything we love about her acting into one tremendous performance. Playing a character that exists almost solely for comic relief, she does have a wonderful revelation scene of her own, where her decades-long career across almost every imaginable genre and cinematic movement is put on display. She is also a major part of the final moments of the film that leave the audience chilled to the bone. Darrieux is a welcome presence in this film, and she almost seems to hold the film together – whereas all the characters have dashing motives, Darrieux dares to just exist as a character there to react and offer her own opinions, while still adding to the story in her own right. It is a very meaningful performance underneath the stereotypical “hilarious old lady” trope, and once you see why, you’ll understand the reason behind having her song as the last in the film.

I can pinpoint the exact moment I hopelessly fell in love with 8 Women – despite having enjoyed it from the very first moment, the scene that sealed it for me was Emmanuelle Béart’s big moment, her song – “Pile ou face” is the best song in the entire film, and one I had to rewatch several times. She may not give the best performance in the film (but she is one of the strongest), she certainly had the best song and the most exquisite moment. From the very beginning of the film, Louise is a sinister character – the true outsider in this group, a woman who is mysterious, with unknown motives and a seemingly dark and secretive history – and as the film progresses, we never truly trust her, while still being fascinated by her extraordinary performance. The entire film was brought to a grinding halt when her big number occurred, and it was almost magical how her character transformed (in terms of revealing her character, physically changing her appearance a bit later on, also a wonderfully great moment). It is difficult to choose a true standout in this film because all of these ladies are so special – but Emmanuelle Béart left the most lasting impression on me. It is such a deliciously complex and layered performance.

Now onto the real reason why we watch 8 Women ­– the trio of veteran French actresses that form the basis of the film’s popularity, the three women who actually made this film worth watching, if only for the fact that anyone who loves French cinema would be positively jumping at the opportunity to see them acting across from one another. Fanny Ardant is the first of these ladies. I will admit that of the three, I was the least aware of her work – I definitely knew about her and had seen her in a few films, but I always thought she was slightly neglected. It is difficult to see why, but evident why she is such a truly extraordinary actress and one that has become quite an icon of French cinema. In 8 Women, Ardant plays Pierrette, the ex-stripper wife of the victim, and her arrival in the film signals quite a shift in tone, as she became the de facto villain, when in actuality she was one of the most genuinely good characters in the film, someone who dealt with similar prejudices as Chanel. Anyone who doesn’t instantly find themselves captivated by Ardant’s unique charms and incredible acting really needs to reconsider their lives and their choices.

Catherine Deneuve is an icon if there ever was one. The image of her covered in manure from Belle de jour is one of the first cinematic memories I have. Working with the likes of Roman Polanski (in the terrifying Repulsion), François Truffaut (in The Last Metro) and Luis Buñuel (in the aforementioned Belle de jour) solidified her status as a true cinematic force. I was the most curious to see Deneuve in this film because it seemed to be unlike anything she has ever done before. I will not deny that I found myself falling in love with her as an actress all over again – she proves to an extraordinary actress by giving a performance that far exceeds the boundaries of the stereotypical rich floozy that we expect her to play. François Ozon is a director who has very clear intentions, and I applaud him for seeing the opportunity to put Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve, known for being objects of lust in the films of Truffaut, in a memorable scene that is somewhat uncomfortable, but gloriously shocking in audacity. Deneuve is absolutely brilliant in this film, and her emotional arc is heart wrenching and unforgettable.

Of course, I needed to save the best for last. There are two words that define French cinema for me – Isabelle Huppert. I implore everyone who is a non-believer to bow down to the true and mystical powers of the one and only queen. Everytime I think Isabelle Huppert has given a historical performance, one that cannot ever be topped, she gives another one that goes above that. Would it be hyperbolic to call Isabelle Huppert the greatest living actress? It might be, but I could not care less because Huppert has worked as a true cinematic force for decades now. In 8 Women, it may not be a showcase for her talents as a leading lady, but it certainly does allow Huppert to show that she is just as influential when she is part of an ensemble as when she is leading a film. Playing Augustine, Huppert is absolutely astounding – such a different character from what we normally see from Huppert, she is a lonely spinster who is bitter and resentful of the lot she has drawn and finds herself trying to be someone who shuts herself off from the world, presenting a particular identity to everyone, but keeping her true persona to herself. Huppert undergoes a transformation in this film, and while the revelation scene is a moment that has been done countless times before in films, in 8 Women it just seems so much more unique and impactful, as we have grown to see this character in a certain way, and to have that perception radically changed is impressive. Honestly, the reason why Huppert was clearly the best in this film was because unlike Deneuve and Ardant, she wasn’t playing a character that relied on the strength of her name and reputation, but rather a character that allowed Huppert to become almost unrecognizable in terms of how she plays the role. She becomes lost in the role, and it is fascinating to watch. Isabelle Huppert will be remembered as one of the most brilliant performers to ever grace our world, and I am just grateful to have been blessed to exist in the same moment as the divine Isabelle Huppert.

It may seem a bit much to dedicate so much of this review to the performances, but understand that 8 Women exists as a film that finds its success in the strengths of its cast. Without the cast, where each member of the ensemble brought their absolute best to every aspect of the performance, this film would fail. There is not a single weak link in the entire film, and the extremely magnetic chemistry the cast has with each other make it a truly otherworldly experience. Yet, there is far more than just the cast that makes 8 Women such a perfect film.

8 Women is based on an obscure play from decades past, and the theatrical influence is very present here. In essence, 8 Women is set in one location, and the film is made to appear like a play in some ways, but not in a manner that would be alienating. It isn’t merely a filmed version of a play, but rather a film that takes its cue from the artificial nature of the theatre – and I would be lying if I said François Ozon wasn’t heavily inspired by the work of the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk and the masters of artifice, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. 8 Women is a homage to some of the forgotten genres of film that somehow lost their appeal over time, but still exist as remnants of the past – 8 Women is essentially a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, through the lens of a musical comedy that has been inspired by classical melodrama. Lavish production numbers and a sense of dread are not usually found working in conjunction, but Ozon seamlessly blends genre and conventions to create something wonderfully special.  8 Women could have easily been a homage to one of these genres, but rather opts to be something that encompasses all of them. Under a less driven director, it could have been a monumental failure, but Ozon understands how to set the tone, write characters and use the atmosphere as a quasi-character in his films. Ozon created the impossible, and handled the shifts so delicately and beautifully, it was actually quite astounding.

I adored 8 Women. It was a true guilty pleasure – seeing these iconic French actresses sharing the screen owed towards my leaping delight, and it was just so deliciously wonderful. The cast is absolutely superb, and one of the best ensembles to ever be assembled for any film. The music was well-selected, and the film as a whole just looked so beautiful throughout. They don’t make films like 8 Women anymore, the rare homage that can stand amongst the very films that inspired it. François Ozon is a visionary filmmaker, and 8 Women is just one of several feathers in his proverbial cap. I really can’t wait to watch this film again, and I expect to love it more with each subsequent viewing. If you haven’t seen it, then seek it out now. It is unforgettable, entertaining and darkly hilarious, and the cast is just beyond sublime.

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