- Sister act: Catherine and Suzon belt out a duet.
Ordinarily it would seem pretty odious to put so fine a point on this, but what the hey: Gather up your gay friends, because here's a movie they're going to dig, dig, dig. Well, probably, anyway. That general demographic seems to be the target audience of the radical, whimsical French import 8 Women, a musical murder mystery that's as fun and frolicsome up top as it is dark and disturbing below. While the movie's humor can't rightly be called black -- it's closer to a dark purple bruise -- there's a distinct edginess to the piquant proceedings that belies what appears, at first, to be a formulaic ingredient list for a gay soufflé: French women singing and dancing and bitching about life, death, sex (straight and gay), and money in fabulous clothes. You'll chuckle appreciatively from beneath a furrowed brow.
It's pretty safe to say that claustrophobic, gay-themed murder mysteries haven't been this much fun since Deathtrap, and -- as with that gem from 20 years ago -- director François Ozon (who adapted Water Drops on Burning Rocks from Fassbinder) bases his project on a play, Robert Thomas's 8 Femmes. It's a dodgy move, locking us up with crazy people in a snowbound environment -- seems more appropriate for something like Misery or The Shining -- but, because Ozon so lovingly attends to the campy vamping on his finite stage, the feminine energy of the performances is greatly amplified, like some indoor version of Charlie's Angels for the fiercely neurotic.
After being lulled into a very false sense of security by a serene 360-degree pan about a wintry estate (complete with a deer licking icicles -- aw), we find ourselves introduced to a colorful lot of characters keeping warm amid the striking 1950s design (by Arnaud de Moléron) and costumes (by Pascaline Chavanne). The beautiful old stone house belongs to the film's sole male character, Marcel (credited below the production drivers as Dominique Lamure), a wealthy industrialist who spends the entire movie (save for flashbacks) dead as a doornail with a knife in his back. Surrounding him and his life, we learn the dirty little secrets of the complex, potential femmes fatales of the title.
What's wonderful about Ozon's movie (and Thomas's play) is the dedication to developing the unforgettable characters of each of these women. Foremost are two: Marcel's wife, Gaby (Catherine Deneuve, still sex on wheels), is at once powerfully sensual and completely unsure of herself -- a lethal combination -- while her sister Augustine (the sensational Isabelle Huppert) is a model of repressed desire, prim cruelty, and boundless self-pity (her tears are at once hilarious and profoundly moving). They are joined in sorting out Marcel's murder by Gaby's two daughters, stylish Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), newly returned from studying in England; and tomboyish Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), who desperately desires to be respected as an adult. Rounding out the family are the deceptive, wizened matriarch, Mamy (Danielle Darrieux), and Marcel's ardent sister, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), a former exotic dancer who doesn't hesitate to tell Gaby, "I'm a failed bourgeois, and you're a failed whore." Not a family for pulling punches.
If this were just an Agatha Christie knockoff or just a French soap opera, Ozon's direction would hold things together admirably, as he has a penchant for fawning over les visages des actrices, even in cutaway reaction shots. But absurdity reigns here in his quest for emotional truth, so, altogether unnaturally (and yet not), each of the women bursts into song at one point or another. The tunes (composed and arranged by Krishna Lévy) are generally simple, as is the choreography -- no echoes of Busby Berkeley here -- but the sticky charm of these awkwardly placed numbers is enhanced by the elegant minimalism of the setting. Your eyes may roll a little, but they won't leave the screen.
It would be unfair to blow the fun of 8 Women by revealing the many clandestine twists and turns these characters have in store for you, but one can say that if you love a good catfight, here's your arena. Sisters and sisters-in-law take each other to the floor, and when the servants get involved, it gets even messier. Domestic Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard) blurs lines of sexuality with Pierrette (and also snags one of the best, most woeful songs). And then there's the chambermaid, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart, looking very curiously like a female version of Orlando Bloom as Legolas from Lord of the Rings), whose lust knows no bounds. When she demands, "Is it wrong to give oneself completely?" the answer is, um, no, probably not. So by all means dig 8 Women, because clearly you don't have to be gay to have a gay old time.