You have never, ever seen anything on a cinema screen like 8 Women. Don’t even pretend you have.
There’s nothing inherently complimentary about such a bold proclamation, of course. Singularity is no guarantee of quality—if it were, we’d be nudging Citizen Kane aside on the list of all-time greats to make room for Freddy Got Fingered. In fact, film enthusiasts too often hurdle one another in a race to pile the most hosannas on anything daring, giving only a faint wave of the hand to whether or not the experiment actually succeeds. You don’t award a gold medal to the guy whose gymnastics routine had the greatest degree of difficulty if he lands flat on his ass half a dozen times.
In 8 Women, director FranÃ§ois Ozon goes for his own artistic gold and grabs it. Painting with a Technicolor brush, Ozon loosely adapts Robert Thomas’ play about a murder mystery in a snowbound manor. On the day a family gathers for the holidays, the down-on-his-luck master of the house, Marcel, is found with a knife in his back. Whodunnit? His bored wife Gaby (Catherine Denude)? His uptight spinster sister-in-law Augustine (Isabelle Huppert)? Daughters Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) or Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier)? Free-spirited sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant)? Miserly mother-in-law Mamy (Danielle Darrieux, playing Deneuve’s mother for the third time on screen)? Or maybe even one of the hired help—chambermaid Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) or housekeeper Chanel (Firmine Richard)?
The all-star cast of babes from three generations of Gallic cinema—combined with the presence of Ozon, who directed last year’s brooding, melancholy Under the Sand—may inspire fears of a French art-house version of Murder on the Orient Express. But there’s nothing stolidly glossy about this production. Ozon spikes the proceedings with a wicked sense of humor, every melodramatic revelation of sexual indiscretion more absurdly shocking than the last. He makes jaw-dropping use of color and costume, creating something as stylistically stunning as it is entertaining. The actresses—particularly Huppert with her clenched take on Augustine—savor every last drop of their juicy characters, giving every accusation and arched eyebrow a delicious spin. Forget French art house—we’re talking about something closer to Dynasty.
Assuming, of course, that Blake and Crystal ever made like Fred and Ginger and broke into a song and dance number. That’s right, 8 Women is a musical on top of its other elements, with the characters’ inner desires emerging through classic pop chestnuts à la Moulin Rouge. With stylish panache, Ozon takes the stuff of parlor mystery and turns it into something wildly, delightfully unpredictable. It’s like Douglas Sirk directing The Mousetrap by way of Bollywood.
And it’s not even enough to think of 8 Women as a clever genre-bending goof. Buried beneath the surface luster are some pointed jabs at the roles these women feel trapped in—mother, good daughter, loyal servant, wife—both in “real life” and as actresses on a movie screen. The characters are types, but Ozon knows they’re types, and sympathizes with their straining to break free from the men who define them. When the mystery reaches its unexpected resolution—painting a vivid picture of the master who shapes the narrative without ever speaking a word—the sudden fourth-wall-breaking shift in tone proves to be pitch perfect.
Anything this completely original is bound to stumble occasionally, and won’t be for every taste. The musical interludes are not uniformly captivating, and stray lyrically into some pretty shaky philosophical territory. But when a talented director recruits most of France’s finest actresses into a tale this frisky and tuneful—and even occasionally poignant—you may be ready to stand and applaud when the cast joins hands for its closing curtain call. Congratulations, FranÃ§ois Ozon—not only did you throw in an extra back-somersault, you stuck the landing.