8 Women: Camp Sensibility from Gallic Director Francois Ozon

Highly original, 8 Women, the French comedy-musical film, was written and directed by François Ozon, openly gay filmmaker.

The source material is old, but the approach is not.  Based on the 1958 play by Robert Thomas, it features a cast of high-profile actresses, including Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, and Firmine Richard.

The tale centers on an eccentric family of women and their employees in the 1950s, the film follows eight women as they gather to celebrate Christmas in an isolated, snowbound cottage – only to find Marcel, the family’s patriarch, dead with a knife in his back. Trapped in the house, every woman becomes a suspect, each having her own motive and secret.

Ozon initially envisioned to film a remake of George Cukor’s 1939 cult classic The Women, but eventually settled on Thomas’s Huit femmes due to legal reasons. Drawing inspiration from Cukor’s screwball comedies of the late 1930s and the 1950s work of stylish directors such as Douglas Sirk and Minnelli, 8 Women addresses themes like murder, greed, adultery, sexuality, mixing the genres of farce, melodrama, musical, and murder-mystery. Primarily set in a manor-house, the film retains the play’s original theatrical feel. It also references as a pastiche of and homage to film history, especially films revolving around  actresse.

8 Women competed for the Golden Bear at the 52nd Berlin International Film Fest, where its all-female cast was awarded the Silver Bear. Released to critical acclaim, with major praise for the stars, the film was nominated for 12 César Awards (French Oscars) including Best Film.

At the 2002 European Film Awards, the film was nominated for six awards including Best Film and Best Director; it won for Best Actress for the eight main actresses.

Detailed Plot

The film is set in the 1950s in a large country residence, as a family and its servants are preparing for Christmas, when the master of the house is discovered dead in his bed, with a dagger stuck into his back. The murderer must be one of the eight women in the house at the time, and in the course of the investigations each has a tale to tell and secrets to hide.

The scene opens with Suzon returning from school for Christmas break, finding her mother Gaby, her younger sister Catherine, and her wheelchair-bound grandmother Mamy in the living room, where most of the action of the film takes place. Their conversation drifts to the subject of the patriarch of the family, Marcel, and Catherine leads the first song of the film, “Papa t’es plus dans le coup” (roughly, “Dad, you’re out of touch”). The singing wakes up Suzon and Catherine’s aunt Augustine, who picks arguments with the rest of the family and the two servants (Madame Chanel and Louise), eventually returning upstairs, threatening to commit suicide. Mamy jumps out of her wheelchair, trying to stop her, haphazardly explaining her ability to walk as a “Christmas miracle.” Augustine is eventually calmed down, and she sings her song of longing, “Message personnel” (Personal Message).
The maid takes the tray upstairs, finds Marcel’s stabbed body, and screams. Catherine goes up to see what happened and locks the door. The others finally go up to Marcel’s room to see him stabbed in the back. Catherine tells the others that they should not disturb the room until the police arrive so they re-lock the door. Realizing that the dogs have not barked the night before, it seems clear that the murderer was one of the women in the house. Attempting to call the authorities, they find that the phoneline has been cut, and they will have to go in person to the police station. However, the women are distracted by the announcement that someone is roaming in the garden, who for some reason, the guard dogs are not chasing. The person turns out to be Marcel’s sister Pierrette, a nightclub singer who is also rumored to be a prostitute, and has not been allowed to the house before, due to Gaby’s dislike for her. When questioned, she claims she received a mysterious phone call, telling her that her brother was dead; she also sings “A quoi sert de vivre libre” (What’s the point of living free?), commenting on her sexual freedom.
It is realized that she has been to the house before, as the dogs did not bark and she knew immediately which room belonged to her brother, making her the eighth potential killer. The women try to start the car, and find that it has been sabotaged, cutting them off from help due to the snowstorm outside, until they can hitchhike to town when the weather clears. The women spend their time trying to find the murderer amongst them. It is discovered that Suzon in fact returned the night before, to tell her father in secret that she was pregnant. She sings a song to Catherine, “Mon Amour, Mon Ami” (My Lover, My Friend), about her lover however, she has in fact been abused by her father. We later find out that, unknown to everyone involved excluding Gaby, Suzon is not his child, and is actually the child of Gaby’s first great love. Gaby reveals that he was killed not long after her conception and that every time she looks at Suzon, she is reminded of her love for him.
Suspicion then swings to Madame Chanel, the housekeeper, whose actions the night before seem suspicious; it is revealed that she has been having an affair with Pierrette, who went to see her brother that night to ask for money to pay off her debts. When some members of the family react in outrage to the fact that she is a lesbian, Madame Chanel retreats to the kitchen, and sings “Pour ne pas vivre seul” (So as to not live alone).
In the meantime we find out that Mamy, Suzon’s and Catherine’s “old and sick” grandmother, not only can walk but also possesses some valuable shares that could have saved Marcel from his bankruptcy. Out of greed she lied that her shares have been stolen by someone who knew where she was hiding them. The spotlight moves to Louise, the new maid, who is found out to be Marcel’s mistress. She declares, however, affection for Gaby, but also expresses disappointment in her for her weakness and indecision. She sings “Pile ou Face” (literally Heads or Tails, but referring to the Ups and Downs of life), and removes the symbols of her servitude, her maid’s cap and apron, asserting herself as an equal to the other women. Gaby sings “Toi Jamais” (Never You), about Marcel, saying that he never paid enough attention to her, while other men did; it is revealed that she had an affair with his business partner Jacques Farneaux, the same man who has been having an affair with Pierrette. The two women get into a fight that turns into a passionate make-out session on the living room floor, which the others walk in on and are stunned.

Madame Chanel discovers the solution to the mystery but is silenced by a gunshot; she is not hit but goes mute out of shock, while Catherine takes the lead, revealing that she had hidden in her father’s closet, and had seen the other women all talk to Marcel the night before, and explains the mystery: Marcel had faked his own death, with her help, to see what was really going on in his house. She claims that he is now free of the other women’s clutches, and rushes into his bedroom, only to see him shoot himself in the head, in absolute dismay. Mamy ends the film with the song “Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux” (There is no happy love) that reunites all the women involved as they grab hands and face the audience.

Danielle Darrieux as Mamy, the matriarch
Isabelle Huppert as Augustine, her tachycardiac daughter
Catherine Deneuve as Gaby, her other daughter, the victim’s wife
Virginie Ledoyen as Suzon, the victim’s eldest daughter
Ludivine Sagnier as Catherine, the victim’s youngest daughter
Fanny Ardant as Pierrette, the victim’s sister
Emmanuelle Béart as Louise, the new chambermaid
Firmine Richard as Madame Chanel, the cook
Dominique Lamure as Marcel, the victim, Gaby’s husband