8 femmes

8 femmesSynopsis: Academy Award nominee Catherine Deneuve (The Musketeer) Isabelle Huppert (The Swindle) and Fanny Ardant (Elizabeth) star in this outrageous mystery about a wealthy industrialist who has been found murdered in his home while his family gathers for the holiday season. The house is isolated in a snowstorm and the phone lines have been cut. Eight women are his potential murderers; his calculating wife, his two mischievous daughters, his meddling mother-in-law, his neurotic sister-in-law, his sexy sister, the faithful family cook and the sultry new maid. Each woman is a suspect. Each has a motive. Beautiful, tempestuous, intelligent, sensual and dangerous…One of them is guilty. Which one is it?

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8 femmes 8.25

eyelights: the fabulous cast. the deliciously juicy script. the constant new revelations. the final twist.
eyesores: the double-edged artificial audio mix on the musical numbers.

‘8 femmes’ is a French murder-mystery musical comedy from 2002. Based on the eponymous 1958 play by Robert Thomas (which was also brought to the silver screen in 1960 by Víctor Merenda), it was a smash hit, grossing well over four times its budget. It also crashed the 2003 César Awards (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) with 11 nominations. Amazingly, it didn’t win any – breaking a record for greatest loss ever.

Emulating the feel of a play (it largely takes place on one set, a massive living room), the picture is set during the Christmas holidays, in an opulent, snow-covered country home. In it gather a few family members and the hired help – all of them women except for the head of the family, patriarch Marcel. Polite exchanges between the clan members can barely mask underlying tensions, and will soon become venomous.

However, for now, their chief concern is the fact that Marcel, who hadn’t gotten up for breakfast, is found stabbed in the back in his bed. In  shock, and in fear for their lives, the women want to call for help. But they soon realize that they are closed off from the outside world. To make matters worse, it suddenly occurs to them that the dogs never alerted them of a stranger on the grounds – which means the killer is still there.

And it’s likely one of them!

‘8 femmes’ is set during the fifties, and it brings to mind the whodunit films of that era: it’s light, not quite a comedy, but not sinister either. It’s just plain fun. And, unlike those films, it features eight leading ladies – most of whom were big names or up-and-comers. In fact, it’s really an all-female cast: The only man in the whole piece has no dialogue and can only be seen from the back – and with a knife in it, no less.

It’s a delicious combination: Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart, Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Virginie Ledoyen, Firmine Richard, and Ludivine Sagnier play off of each other with remarkable skill, effortlessly. You can see that they were making the most out of this rare opportunity to be on-screen equals, to not be relegated to the usual secondary roles of mother, spouse or girlfriend.

On top of that they each get a solo number in the picture (and they apparently actually got to sing on the soundtrack themselves). Some of the numbers sound like ’80s pop songs, not just in style but in the way they’re mixed. And the tracks aren’t blended into the picture at all: it’s as though someone put on a CD and they’re lip-synching to it, a weird effect. It’s only passable because the film doesn’t take itself too seriously.

…and because the cast is having so much fun. I wasn’t all that keen on the songs or the numbers (which are excellent, if simplistic), but the enthusiasm was apparent and their spirit was nearly-infectious. I wouldn’t get the soundtrack, but I could watch this with little discomfort – and I’m hardly the world’s greatest cheerleader for musicals. It’s just that it’s done with class, self-awareness and an obvious lack of pretension.

What really got me were the dialogues and plot development: the exchanges are overflowing with blame, suspicion and backstabbing (pun intended). Wow… and the sheer amount of catty cut-downs is unbelievable! It’s as though everyone in this family had been in a pressure cooker for years and the top was just blown off. The revelations are just nuts! Can you say repressed dysfunction much?

‘8 femmes’ is abundant with twists, revelations, dark secrets, …etc., to the point that it’s amusing – it’s convoluted to the point of ridicule. But I loved this aspect of the picture: these whodunnits always were like this, and it feels as though ‘8 femmes’ is either an homage or a loving exaggeration – it takes it up one notch, all the while winking at the audience knowingly, all the while not actually turning into parody.

Oh, and what an AWESOME ending! Genius!

You can’t hope for a more balanced dark comedy than ‘8 femmes’. It’s not sinister whatsoever, and it’s not quite a comedy, even as it flirts with the genre. It’s just pure fun. I would recommend this to anyone who wants a movie with edge, but who doesn’t want something too serious either. It’s worth it for the cast alone, but it’s such a terrific mix overall, that it deserves to be seen. There are few (any?) films like it.

And, truth be told, I like it more the more I watch it.

Date of viewing: May 13, 2014

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