I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down to watch the 2002 French film 8 femmes (8 Women) for my French Cinema course. Although I didn’t know it when I opened my laptop and searched for a sketchy bootleg copy of the film, boy, was I in for something that I wouldn’t forget anytime soon.
French director François Ozon’s oeuvre is not-at-all as well known in the English-speaking cinema world as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s legendary Amélie. That being said, Ozon’s piece ought to be just as acclaimed as the whimsical story of everyone’s favourite French movie girl, Amélie Poulain.
8 femmes takes place in the 1950s in a large mansion in the middle of the French countryside. Within this house, we find two maids and a totally-average bourgeois family consisting of a matriarch, Mamy, her two polar-opposite daughters, Gaby and Augustine, and two seemingly-innocent granddaughters, Suzon and Catherine.
The household prepares for Christmas festivities, but before long, a tragedy occurs (dun dun!): the master of the house, Marcel, is found in his bedroom with a knife in his back. The telephone line is found cut and the family is snowed in, unable to trek out of house grounds or contact the police. To complicate matters, almost immediately after this discovery, Marcel’s saucy sister, Pierrette, shows up at the house unannounced. In classic whodunit style, the culprit is hidden among the film’s female cast: the eight women present. The film takes us through the different characters and their potential motivations for killing the sole male in the mansion. Suspicions swing from woman to woman and dramatic plotlines unwind before the big whodunit reveal.
Although there are certainly some Agatha Christie-esque elements of melodrama and intrigue in 8 femmes, what made this film stand out for me was Ozon's intriguing genre-mixing. Each of the female characters has a scene in which they randomly burst into song, complete with her co-stars humming, jiving or awkwardly swaying in the background. (Trust me, this was not High School Musical or West Side Story; it was more like drama class skit night crossed with a murder mystery party.)
Dramatic moments in the film are also often immediately followed by comedic events or quips. Some might see these scenes to be tacky, uncanny or out-of-place, which I did at first, but in the end, I found them to be absolutely charming. The weirdness just seemed to work all of a sudden. I don’t want to say that it was so bad that it was good, as the film wasn’t bad at all. I will say, though, that the juxtaposition of such unexpected moods and the kitschiness of it all was so clever that it was good. In the end, the bizarre mix of comedy, drama and musical theatre, though perhaps disorienting to some, adds to the movie’s unique quirkiness. The French tunes also add to its appeal — and totally got stuck in my head.
My French Cinema professor said that this film belongs to the tradition of the “Cinéma du ‘look’,” and, although I’m still not too sure what that genre entails (a fact which will have dire consequences when I write my final exam), while watching this movie, I was definitely looking.
Besides the out-of-the-blue musical numbers in the middle of melodramatic scenes, I was also mesmerized by the 50s technicolor aesthetic that was achieved in the film, even though 8 femmes came out in the early 2000s. How the colours seemed so muted and yet so damn vibrant at the same time absolutely fascinated me.
The film could also be seen as progressive for its time, seeing that it depicts lesbian and/or bisexual characters in a non-negative light. This depiction culminates in a chaotic (in a good way) scene of sexual-tension-and-frantic-struggle-turned-make-out-session.
The only thing that makes me feel a tad uneasy after the fact is that it was indeed a man who directed this (potentially) female-empowering, lesbianism-showing, music- and dance-mania of a film. (Questionable-ish scenes, such as when the maid Louise seductively whips off her maid’s bonnet come to mind.) But other than that, I really have no qualms about 8 femmes.
For me, the film and its ways are absolute genius. In fact, I’d urge every French major or minor, nay, every person enthused about women or murder or musicals or all of the above, or even those who just want to brag about being so cultured to have watched a French-language flic, to seek this film out. Indeed, I’ve strongly urged my French major friends to watch this movie with some wine in hand this holiday season. Its weirdness aside, I will swear to the grave that this film is a cinematic masterpiece.