8 Women (France, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Is it possible to have more fun in a movie theater than with 8 Women, one of the most uplifting and delightful films to have come along this year? The product of French director François Ozon, 8 Women offers as much delicious enjoyment to the viewer as it obviously did to the cast and crew when they were assembling it. Part satire, part comedy, part musical, and part murder mystery, this motion picture criss-crosses genre lines at will, offering just about every kind of pleasure imaginable, guilty or otherwise.

The eight women of the title are Gaby (Catherine Deneuve); her daughters, Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) and Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen); her mother (Danielle Darrieux); her sister, Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); her sister-in-law, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant); and her two maids, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) and Chanel (Firmine Richard). These characters are trapped together in a house during a snowstorm with one dead body (Marcel, Gaby's husband) and cut phone lines. Tensions run high, with each woman suspecting the others of being the killer. Secrets, some silly and some shocking, are revealed. Suzon begins acting like Hercule Poirot, and everyone else takes an occasional break to lapse into song and dance. A more enjoyable confection cannot be found.

What a cast! No director could dream of a more talented and beautiful group of actresses to grace his film. The names read like a who's who of French film across three generations: the youngsters (Ledoyen, Sagnier, and Béart), the middle-aged stars (Deneuve, Huppert, Ardant), and the venerable grande dame (Danielle Darrieux). All of them are in top form and completely in step with what Ozon is attempting. In addition to paying homage to, as well as spoofing, Agatha Christie (via a '60s play written by Robert Thomas), he is re-creating the look and feel of a '50s or '60s Technicolor movie, complete with brightly-hued costumes, old-fashioned set design, and a lushly melodramatic score. Plus, for good measure, he throws in six musical numbers, allowing nearly all of the characters an opportunity to play the canary. Add to that a lot of witty, spicy dialogue; numerous surprise twists and turns (many of which are hilarious); and a not-to-be-missed catfight between Ardant and Deneuve, and Ozon has exceeded all expectations. With this film, he has also established himself as a filmmaker of great range. One cannot imagine a more stark contrast between the light-as-a-feather entertainment of 8 Women and the painful, haunting seriousness of his previous movie, Under the Sand.

In many ways, 8 Women is the ultimate feel-good movie, Ozon's valentine to those who have stuck with him through all of his previous, serious work. Like Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, this is a chance for a respected artist to let down his hair and go a little crazy. 8 Women has the life and energy of a manic comedy, the spirit of a musical, and the heart of a mystery. And, believe it or not, despite all of the madcap zaniness going on, viewers come to care about the characters and are interested in knowing the answer to the crucial question of "Whodunnit?" In true Agatha Christie fashion, there's as much of a twist to that as there is to just about everything else in this wonderfully entertaining motion picture.

Those who avoid this movie because it's subtitled are cheating only themselves. (Besides, with so many beautiful women on screen, the movie would be worth seeing even with the subtitles removed.) This is the most satisfying of parfaits, and unquestionably one of the most enjoyable films of 2002.

8 Women (France, 2002)

Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2002-09-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1