8 WOMEN — Francois Ozon, France, 2002, 9
Paul Clark has been writing an intermittent series with the Truffaut-inspired title “The Movies of My Life,” the second entry being 8 WOMEN. If you imagine an Agatha Christie one-act play like “The Mousetrap” reimagined as a French musical¹ directed by Douglas Sirk (the opening shot is a nod to ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS — the deer in the snow), you have the basic idea. I’d already seen 8 WOMEN twice in 2002, but not since, and Paul’s writing tickled enough memories to make me look at it again this afternoon.
At first viewing at a festival, I simply relished the film as a silly, confectionery lark, and 8 WOMEN is about as enjoyable on those terms as a movie gets — the candy-colored sets and costumes, the bitchy dialogue, the hammy acting, the perfect coiffes, the cheerfully amateurish music, the whole well-perfumed ambience, the absurdly “on the nose” plotting, the outrageous “secret revelations.”
Here’s my favorite musical number from the film, and it cracks me up every time I see it. When I’ve watched 8 WOMEN with audiences, the scene quickly split the viewers into those who were gonna go with the film and those who weren’t (please forgive the muddiness … this is the best repro I could find on YouTube that had English subtitles).
Notice how grandmother Danielle Darrieux sorta boogies with her shoulders in the wheelchair and how mother Catherine Deneuve and other daughter Virginie Ledoyen sorta swivel into the picture with Ludivine Sagnier and go along with a kind of choreography that calls to mind “Ready, Steady, Go.” It’s how the whole movie operates — the characters go along with the musical conventions though they’re kinda silly. But the film is able to have fun with them by taking them seriously (diegetically). Until the very last scene, when it calls “game-playing” into question.
Here is Emmanuelle Beart’s number without subs, and Isabelle Huppert’s with Dutch subtitles. In both cases, the style tells you what you need to know — Huppert’s mostly spoken-word number expresses repressed heartbreak, Beart’s saucy maid jumping back and forth between “come hither” and “here I am.” Huppert’s number is the key to the film; she is a completely different person in song than the tight-ass jealous spinster she plays with gusto in the rest of the film. She jumps into and out of “character” as easily as an actor playing a role
The thing that struck me more this time than back then was how these eight women are not simply thoroughly one-dimensional, but also explicable only in terms of movie roles. Fanny Ardant plays a self-conscious seductress, but ask yourself … a woman acting in the manner of this picture, wearing a dress like that, a red one no less (the Jezebel … her musical number actually is a cool-jazz striptease down to this outfit) trying WAY too hard, even if she actually is as attractive as Ardant.
Also, every time somebody enters for the first time, another character has a line of dialogue that defines her role “hello, Aunt Augustine” or “welcome, dear sister” — that sort of semi-expository words that people never say in real life but always on the stage, to introduce the role. And all the nods to French films throughout really take the place of characterization — Ardant as the woman next door; Huppert playing the piano and saying bread is better with chocolate; Ledoyen worrying over her marital status; Deneuve and Ardant in a lesbian catfight scene. This isn’t just cinephilic trivia, trivial though it unquestionably is (and I’ve only scratched the surfaces of cross-reference)². Rather the movie references are the characterization in this movie, because these eight women are defined by their roles.
But to cite a film starring Danielle Darrieux, they’re are only superficially superficial. The greatness of the ending is precisely in how it recodes everything, how it moves what went before from absurdly artificial game-playing to higher stakes than a certain rather young character had bargained for.
It turns out that the master of the house hadn’t really been killed, but the youngest woman, the one with the least experience of life (Sagnier), had staged it to play an exercise in truth-telling (all the revelations of incest and thievery and alcoholism and adultery and illegitimacy and secret letters that had spilled out in the previous hour). But airing dirty laundry is not always the best thing to do, and the Monsieur, hearing all these revelations, kills himself in despair upon learning what a pigsty of a family surrounds him. Now Sagnier genuinely is heartbroken and Darrieux sings a ballad of regret as the other actresses do a slow, macabre step-dance around them. “There is no happy love,” the eldest character tells the youngest, who had the peppiest, brightest song at the very start, and whose childish game-playing and insistence on ‘honesty’ had led to the (real) tragedy. But there would be no tragedy at the end, if the first 95 percent of the movie had not been (1) aggressively frivolous and game-playing in substance (the drawing-room murder mystery); (2) absurdly heightened in its style; and (3) thoroughly enjoyable on those artificial terms. And all that to be destroyed, on the basis of truth that doesn’t do any good. Or as Ryan once put it: “sometimes, for the sake of survival, appearance is preferable to truth … this exalting of appearance is really the aesthetic credo of the film.”
¹ Did you hear that Gerardi … a French musical.
² For example, Ardant became Francois Truffaut’s mistress while playing a role for him in THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR that he based on his affair with Deneuve, his then-current mistress. So having Deneuve and the woman next door both sing self-consciously sexy songs and then get into a fight that becomes a lesbian scene … the mind dizzies.