Monday, March 25, 2013

Overlooked Gems #54: 8 Women

Grade: 84/A-

One month ago, the 86th Academy Awards pronounced the movie musical to be alive again. It’s true that more musicals have been made into films as of late than in the previous couple of decades, but it doesn’ address whether or not these films are any good or not. Rob Marshall’s musicals are edit the numbers to hash, show little imagination, and can’t evoke the periods they celebrate. Tom Hooper showed with Les Miserables that he didn’t know how to frame a shot or edit a sequence to compliment the musical rhythm. The less said about Phyllida Lloyd’s film of Mamma Mia! the better. It seems like editing and staging movie musicals is largely a lost art. Yet in 2002, French director Francois Ozon’s 8 Women showed how a modern musical could match the delight of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen’s musicals while still feeling vibrant and new.

A wealthy French family gathers for Christmas. They include host Gaby (Catharine Deneuve); her college-age daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen); her teenage daughter Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier); her high-strung sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); her wheelchair-bound mother Mamy (Danielle Darrieux); their loyal cook Chanel (Firmine Richard); and new chambermaid Louise (Emmanuelle Beart). When Gaby’s husband is found murdered, the women determine that one of them must have killed him. They are soon joined by the victim’s estranged sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), who claims to have received and anonymous phone call. Cut off from society because of a severed phone line and a snowstorm, they investigate the crime themselves. They soon find that each of them has a motive, not to mention a secret that might challenge their perceptions of each other.

Ozon has made a career out of overt genre pastiches and movie-centric films to the point where he can often seem alienating, but 8 Women’s frothy surface is more inviting than some of his works. The film’s gorgeous Technicolor-influenced palette recalls the great musicals and melodramas of the 1950s, and Ozon knows that audiences pay to see musicals so they can actually see the musical numbers. He trusts his performers to give all the flash the numbers need. It doesn’t hurt that he’s working with a cast of some of the finest French actresses of the past several generations, from Sagnier as the spirited Catherine to Ardant as the confidently sexy Pierriete. Huppert is particularly strong as Augustine, a woman so frightened of romance that she buries her natural beauty and charm underneath neuroticisms.

The way Ozon veers back and forth between the ebullient (Sagnier’s “Papa, You’re Out of Touch”) and the melancholy (Richard’s “So as Not to Live Alone”) is also masterful, and it’s indicative of the real pain hiding beneath the seductive surfaces of the films he loves. There’s a lot of joy in the lives of these eight women, but their successes hide years of money worries, slights against each other, unfulfilled passions, and darker secrets. Those who looked at 8 Women and saw little more than entertaining fluff weren’t looking hard enough. It’s a musical that understands the genre’s base appeals as well as the feelings of longing and dissatisfaction that make many of the best ones so memorable.
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