(director/writer: François Ozon; screenwriters: Marina De Van/based on the play by Robert Thomas; cinematographer: Jeanne Lapoirie; editor: Laurence Bawedin; music: Krishna Lévy; cast: Catherine Deneuve (Gaby), Danielle Darrieux (Mamy), Isabelle Huppert (Augustine), Virginie Ledoyen (Suzon), Ludivine Sagnier (Catherine), Fanny Ardant (Pierrette), Emmanuelle Béart (Louise), Firmine Richard (Madame Chanel), Dominique Lamure (Marcel); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Olivier Delbosc/Marc Missonnier; Focus Features; 2002-France)

I can’t remember one witty line or one moment of great acting.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

François Ozon’s follow-up to “Under the Sand” is a melodramatic, artificially constructed musical comedy/murder mystery, which features an ensemble all-star cast of some of the best French actresses. Like most all-star games at sports events, the film is meaningless and the performers are there to be admired and gawked at and not challenged. “8 Women” is also loaded with lots of kitsch, popular songs that are sung on a whim by less than talented singers, fancy designer costumes exhibiting fashion elegance, and splashes of 1950s Technicolor splendor. It’s a frothy romp on convention and a very French film, which is wall-to-wall covered with cinematic references to the films of Douglas Sirk, Jacques Rivette, Jacques Demy, the Charlie Chan series, “Gosford Park”, and many others. It goes all out for the laugh, and the bitchy comedy reaches way over-the-top. It was also a major box-office smash in France, as that country is seemingly enamored of a good catfight between its glamorous stars.

Reportedly Ozon wished to do a remake of George Cukor’s 1939 adaptation of Clare Boothe’s play The Women but in the absence of owning the film rights, currently held by Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan, he turned to the lesser known 1960s French play by Robert Thomas. This is more a film celebrating actresses than it is a women’s pic as Sirk was noted for, as the actresses here unwind from their usual spirited dramatic roles and are asked to perform miracles with the daring but static playlike script. The women are all catty and conniving and are in-fighting combatants and at times make moves like women mud wrestlers do, as there’s a very definite underlying misogyny that runs throughout the story. Ozon is not trying to sell glamor or good taste or movie magic necessarily, as much as he’s trying to tickle your funny bone and catch your eye with his pastel display of flowery colors serving as the background for his totally asinine story that is meant to make no sense from beginning to end. In that he succeeds, everything is loopy about this flick while the dazzling color on the screen is pleasing to the eye as is candy dangled in front of children. The tricky part is in catching hold of the humor, as it’s not for all tastes. I felt left out as the movie-goers around me laughed heartily as the comedy went deeper into the absurd. But for me this slapstick comedy only replaced dramatic emotions with a smartness reserved for those who get Ozon’s film references and think that’s funny in itself. Others might just be taken aback with how maddening it all is and find themselves laughing from above at the women making fools of themselves, as the women are dangled as if they were puppets onscreen without concern for their sense of being. Unfortunately, this film is dependent only on such lowbrow sitcom antics to get its laughs. I can’t remember one witty line or one moment of great acting. Also, rather than attempting to get me involved with real people and situations, Ozon keeps me at a great distance from knowing these characters as real people. Everything about the women and their dysfunctional family situation is manufactured. Everything becomes foolishly cartoonish. I wasn’t laughing because I didn’t see anything there that was funny.

The film opens as animated and outspoken schoolgirl Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) returns to her snowy secluded parent’s country house for Christmas sometime in the late 1950s. She is warmly greeted by her bourgeois, alcoholic, money hungry, wheelchair-bound, aged, grandmother, Mamy (Danielle Darrieux-her illustrious career started in the 1930s and she’s renown for starring in Max Ophul films); her glamorous, grasping, fur-clad “ice queen” mother, Gaby (Catherine Deneuve); her repressed, bitter, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, overacting spinster aunt, Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); her bookwormish, chipper, younger sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), who is a reader of detective stories; the loyal black housekeeper/cook Chanel (Firmine Richard); and, the impertinent sexy new maid Louise (Emmanuelle Béart). Suzon’s father Marcel (Dominique Lamure) is the only man in the film and is never seen clearly and never utters a line. He’s found dead with a knife in his back, but they can’t get help because the telephone line has been cut, the house gates have been locked and can’t be opened, the road is closed because of a snowstorm, and the car won’t start.

Pierrette (Fanny Ardant) is Marcel’s sexpot, ex-showgirl, mischievous, black-haired, Rita Hayworth-like, estranged sister. She arrives with a full head of steam like a battleship coming into port after an anonymous telephone call informs her Marcel is dead. The 8 women believe the killer must be in the house and so begins a murder investigation that one would expect in a Charlie Chan film or in an Agatha Christie “whodunit.” This brings about the revelation of many secrets regarding such things as: adultery, incest, a lesbian relationship, betrayal between lovers, a past murder by poison, greed, drunkenness, an illegitimate birth and an illicit pregnancy, a fake illness, a false report about missing bonds, business shenanigans leading to a business failure, and other secrets just as deadly. In the course of searching for the killer all the truths about the 8 women suspects come spilling out like a gusher, as each accuses the other of the crime. It would seem Marcel’s better off dead than living with all these vixens. This outrageous situation concludes with a surprise ending aimed to show how neatly the story was put together and how clever the director is, with all the bourgeois women singing about their broken hearts. It’s a song Edith Piaf would sing back then and a French audience would be deeply touched. Here it’s sung as camp, and it’s more amusing than touching.

I was not bowled over by the story, the hammy acting, or the director’s cleverness, as the action seemed ridiculous and never reached any depth. If Sirk was supposedly the guide for Ozon, the “enfant terrible” failed to approach even slightly what Sirk always genuinely pulls out from such melodramatic tales of woe. Some silly point was made about the slight difference between love and hate, as Ardant and Deneuve wrestle on the floor for a handgun and soon end up kissing. But that scene just had no impact, aside from shock value as a sight gag, to really say something. It felt as out of place as the song and dance numbers did. Ozon sprayed all the bourgeois targets he could and still missed hitting any bull’s eyes. If you care to see the real deal in such French films that traditionally mix their music with melodrama, then I suggest you check out Demy’s masterpiece starring a young Deneuve in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and do some comparison shopping. I found this film anemic in comparison to all the other ones Ozon tried to rip-off including the Charlie Chan films, never mind a master filmmaker like Sirk. There was just no joie de vivre or heart to be found, everything felt so artificial and so lacking in conviction.