'8 Women': Bonbons With a Wicked Center

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 27, 2002

"8 Women" finds the young French director Francois Ozon whipping up a confectionary pastiche of 1950s melodramas, 1960s musicals and the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock at their most deeply psychosexual. Which is to say that "8 Women" is a gorgeous, if disjointed, spectacle, made endurable ¿ if not entirely comprehensible ¿ by its eye-popping cast.

Ozon, who paid such sensitive homage to Charlotte Rampling in his 2000 film "Under the Sand," continues to genuflect in the direction of actresses of a certain age. Here, a group of veteran screen goddesses led by Catherine Deneuve is given free rein to camp it up and prove that the old broads have still got it.

And make no mistake, they've still got it, even if "8 Women" turns out to be no more than an indulgent cinematic in-joke. Deneuve plays Gaby, the wealthy wife of an industrialist living in a grand mansion in late 1950s France; she's just brought her eldest daughter, Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays. Also living in the house are Gaby's other daughter, Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier); Gaby's mother, Mamy (Danielle Darrieux); her sister, Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); the maid, Louise (Emmanuelle Beart); and the cook, Chanel (Firmine Richard).

We meet this pulchritudinous, chatty and contentious bunch in the course of a well-appointed opening set piece, punctuated by a song that seems to drop in directly from Deneuve's 1964 movie "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." Only when Gaby's husband is discovered upstairs, with a knife in his back, is the Technicolor perfection of the setting marred. Henceforth, "8 Women" becomes a parlor murder mystery that reveals scads of scandalous secrets and forbidden desires; for those counting at home, the plot thickens with the arrival of Gaby's fast-living sister-in-law, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant).

Reportedly Ozon originally wanted to remake George Cukor's "The Women" but couldn't get the rights, so he settled on buying an obscure play by Robert Thomas called "8 Women." The film, which is set almost entirely in Gaby's living room, retains a stagy quality of heightened theatricality, even as it mines 1950s genre pictures for many of its references. The opening sequences, with their snow-globe images of domestic perfection, are so reminiscent of Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" that you half expect Rock Hudson to bound out from behind a tree. With its bold, luxurious palette and hard-candy surfaces, the film seems less photographed than forged out of silk and nail lacquer. But not all of its impulses are so elegant: When two of the women pair off in an erotically charged wrestling match, the inspiration switches seamlessly from soapy middlebrow tear-jerkers to women-in-prison exploitation pictures.

The cast has a thoroughly good time with "8 Women," and to a certain extent watching such a venerable bunch of actresses enjoy themselves is its own reward. Sagnier is particularly good as Catherine (she's like the kid in "Strangers on a Train," a creepily omniscient little bookworm), and Huppert seems to be making fun of her own recent persona as the primly closeted pervert. But the showstopper is Ardant, who in a sensational turn combining the earthiness of Ava Gardner and the fire of Rita Hayworth, explodes with an elemental force all her own.

Ardant alone is worth the price of admission to "8 Women," even if its maddening, ambiguous conclusion is a bit of a cheat. Indeed, upon reflection, what looks like a delectably sweet film turns out to be a poisonous little bonbon after all. In disguising a wicked heart with the extravagant visual and aural pleasures of "8 Women," Ozon seems to have created an ironically cautionary tale, not just of woman's inhumanity to woman but also of the seductive powers of cinema itself.

8 WOMEN (R, 110 minutes) ¿ Contains some sexual content. In French with subtitles, at area theaters

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