8 Femmes Review
Note: This is a review of the French R2 Édition De Luxe. There are no English subtitles on the film or the extras.
In the wake of Amelie, 8 Femmes (8 Women) has already been a success all over Europe with a similar blend of colourful, highly stylised, non-naturalistic action and comedy. It remains to be seen whether that success is equalled when the film is released in the UK at the end of the month. It has all the right elements – a typical Agatha Christie style whodunit plot (isolated country house, one dead man, plenty of suspects) and some of the best actresses in the history of French cinema.
Set in the 1950s at a luxurious country residence, a family gathers to celebrate Christmas together. The master of the house is found murdered and the only people in the house are eight women who are close to the victim. One of them must be the killer. Heavy snow and a remote location means that they can’t seek outside help. As everyone is suspect, secrets are revealed as they try to prove their innocence.
Based on the play ‘8 Femmes’ the piece is very stage bound, the action taking place for the most part in one single room. There are limits to what you can do with such a setting, but Ozon makes the most of the mise en scène with a beautifully decorated and colourful set and of course, a superb and capable cast. Scenes are photographed with a wide range of shots, group shots, medium shots with one or two people and close-ups when the probing into the characters gets deeper. Fortunately with a cast like this, the film is never anything less than easy on the eye and the director does well to maintain interest for the length of the film.
Being based on a play, there is also a great deal of talking. This is leavened by musical interludes – one for each actress which in addition to breaking up all the dialogue serve to provide an insight into their characters. All the actresses carry out their choreographed singing performances very well – none exceptionally, but they are surprisingly effective. Ozon has used a similar device in his filmed adaptation of the Fassbinder play Water Drops on Burning Rocks.
There have been a few liberties taken with the original play. Everything is pushed slightly over the edge of naturalism almost into caricature. There is no sense of real urgency or menace with the situation the women are in – in an isolated country house with a dead body and a killer – but there are more than a few surprises and improbabilities to keep things going. It is very much a film for and about actresses and the real pleasure of the film is watching these great actresses play off one another. From that point of view the film is certainly a great success.
Personally I enjoyed the performances of the most experienced actresses – Darrieux, Deneuve and Ardant are cool, professional and measured in their performances. Isabelle Huppert however, for me, once again steals the show. It is getting a bit predictable but once again it has to be said – Huppert is simply one of the finest actresses in the world and here again she is absolutely stunning. Throwing herself completely into an absurd caricature of a character, she delivers a performance of pure comic genius that is never less than a joy to watch. Her performance here as Agustine, the uptight, neurotic, repressed aunt might sound like a typical role for her, but whereas she took that type of character to ultra-realistic violent extremes in The Piano Teacher, here she shows how capable an actress she is, delivering one of the funniest performances you will see on the screen this year.
There are two editions available of the French release - a 2 DVD edition and an Édition De Luxe which is made up of 3 DVDs with a soundtrack CD. Disc 1 and Disc 2 are identical on both sets, containing the film and most of the extras with beautifully designed and stylish menus. Disc 3 on the Deluxe edition contains a full version of the original Robert Thomas stage play recorded for television and some original versions of the songs used in the film. The digipack case for the Deluxe Edition is housed in a very fetching, but not terribly sturdy cardboard, red velvet slipcase. A small but useful booklet has detailed comments from the technical crew on make-up, lighting, costumes etc, as well as full filmographies for the cast. The film is anamorphic 1.85:1 and all the extras are 4:3 or letterboxed. There are no English subtitles for either the film or the extras on either French edition
The picture is impressive. Ozon of course is paying homage to Hollywood films of the 50s and 60s, to Sirk, Hitchcock and Cukor and the film attempts to recreate the Technicolor glory of the musicals and melodramas of the period. This transfer does the film justice. I daresay if you went through it frame by frame you might find a dust fleck or two, but to be fair this is a beautiful transfer – deep rich colours and plenty on the screen to enjoy. Reference material really.
There is not much wrong with either the Dolby Digital 5.1 or the DTS soundtrack. Principally using centre speaker, there is suitable and appropriate use of the surrounds. The musical numbers are effective and come across well – a very warm soundtrack. There are one or two instances of hiss behind voices in certain scenes but again there is not much wrong unless you are really looking for it.
The dialogue is in French and there are no English subtitles. The majority of the film isn’t too difficult to follow in French, but it is a very talky and had me reaching for the dictionary a few times. French hard of hearing subtitles are included which are colour coded and placed beside the person speaking on the screen. As there is a lot of talking, not all the dialogue is fully subtitled exactly as spoken. The subtitles behave strangely if the film is paused and rewound slightly (if you miss something and need to go back), getting slightly out of sync with the film. It is very annoying, but returning to the menu and back to the start of a chapter seems to fix this.Unfortunately, this is a film that you really need to see without subtitles. There is an awful lot of dialogue and singing and you don’t want to be constantly focussed on the subtitles when the principal joy of the film is the visuals and the performance of the cast.
Disc 1 Extras
Audio commentary by François Ozon, Dominique Besnehard, Fanny Ardant, Ludivine Sagnier and Agathe Grau
The film has a full commentary from the director with various members of the cast and crew putting in appearances and interacting with the director, keeping the commentary interesting. Ozon discusses adapting a fairly old-fashioned play for a more (post-)modern audience. He originally wanted to re-make George Cukor’s 1939 film The Women, but the rights to that currently belong to Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. Ozon rarely refers to what is specifically happening on the screen, admitting that the plot is secondary to the performance of the actresses. It is not a bad commentary track and there are quite a few interesting subjects discussed, such as how the film got caught up in the French electoral campaign and how each character corresponds to an American cinema archetype (Ledoyen is Audrey Hepburn, Fanny Ardant is Rita Hayworth/Cyd Charisse etc.). Rather daringly, the director identifies an obvious-when-it-is-pointed-out-to-you clue to the identity of the murderer quite early in the film.
Trailers are included for other Ozon films released on DVD – Regarde La Mer/Un Robe D’Été, Sitcom, Les Amants Criminels, Gouttes D’Eau Sur Pierres Brûlants and Sous Le Sable.
One song, "Papa t'es plus dans l'coup", sung by Ludivine Sagnier is shown in a take direct from the film, with song lyrics displayed to sing along to. Rather pointless for just one song, it could have been more useful to provide direct links to each song in the film in the style of the Dancer In The Dark DVD.
Disc 2 Extras
Making of (1.01.20)
Filmed documentary style with a behind the scenes camera, the making of is not the typical glossy and professional production. It follows the creation of the set, rehearsals and recordings for the songs and filming of the scenes. It is quite echoey and unclear and pretty dull. An hour is far too long for this – fifteen to twenty minutes would have more than sufficed. There are no subtitles, but there aren’t any substantial interviews so no French is really required to watch this.
Screen tests for all the actresses can be viewed individually or all together. The silent screen tests show the actresses walking around testing lighting, colours, costumes, close-ups etc. and most of them run to between 5 and 8 minutes. Dull, dull, dull.
A 2.24 opening scene cut from the film is shown here in letterboxed 1.85:1. It was felt that this scene gave away too much too soon about Emmanuelle Béart’s character too early in the film. An 11.33 reel of outtakes, missed lines and mistakes is also included. I didn’t actually enjoy too much watching the actresses fumble their lines continually. One or two may have been enough, but there are too many repeat takes here. Unnecessary.
A good extra, each actress talks about their character, their songs and making the film. Unsurprisingly, they all seemed to enjoy working together, but they would say that. The 8 interviews are between 5 and 8 minutes in length, which is just about right. There are no subtitles, but the interviews are relatively easy to follow in French. There is also a 4 minute interview with the costume designer, who discusses the Dior look of the costumes, with the emphasis on femininity and narrow waists and colour. Finally in this section there is a 3.39 minute press conference interview at the 2002 Berlin film festival with Catherine Deneuve. Nothing important said here, Deneuve talks about filming a couple of difficult scenes with Danielle Darrieux and Fanny Ardant.
Two video clips are shown. An original promo-style video for Catherine Deneuve singing "Toi Jamais", directed by Dominique Isserman and a video of Ludivine Sagnier singing "Papa t'es plus dans l'coup", directed by François Ozon with clips of the original performance by Sheila, directed by Claude Lelouche.
Posters, a Teaser and a Promo Reel for the film. The promo-reel runs to 5 minutes and has fixed English subtitles. It is long and shows many scenes from the film and one or two spoilers. There is also a short clip of the cast confronting the press before the Paris première.
Disc 3 Extras
8 Femmes – the play (2.09.34)
The original play that the film is based on is shown here in its entirety, recorded for television at the Théâtre Marigny on the 7th February 1972. In its own way it is actually a good piece of popular theatre and it is actually quite fascinating to look out for correspondences and differences between the play and the film. The plot is very close to the film and all the different female archetypes (and they are not particularly flattering ones) are there, but there are differences in the interpretations of the characters. The quality is pretty good considering the source. Presented in 4:3, it contains the usual video flaws of glare and lights leaving trails and, being a film of a production played before a live audience, the camera positions and movement are obviously limited. Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile extra of obvious relevance. There are plenty of chapter stops, but only the start of the 3 Acts are accessible from the menu. Needless to say, there are no subtitles of any kind, but it is quite easy to follow, especially if you have already seen the film.
Nostalgie Mélodies: TV broadcasts from the 70s and 80s
Françoise Hardy sings "Message personnel"; Nicoletta sings "A quoi sert de vivre libre" (which with its disco rhythm is more obviously a French version of the Stylistics hit “I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love”); Dalida sings "Pour ne pas vivre seul"; Corinne Charby sings "Pile ou face"; Jane Manson sings "Toi jamais"; Georges Brassens sings "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux". The songs will obviously have more relevance to a French audience who grew up listening to these songs, but it is an interesting extra to see the original versions of the songs used in the film.
An interview with Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve originally broadcast on France 2 on 5th February 2002, the day before the première. The interview is chatty and the actresses again confirm the experience of making the film as an intense group experience, where they worked and lived together for a couple of months and got on fabulously.
Disc 4 Extras
The soundtrack CD runs for around 36 minutes and contains all the songs performed by the actresses in the film. The songs are followed by the excellent orchestral score composed for the film by Krishna Levy.
A fairly stage bound adaptation of a play, 8 Femmes may not seem like great cinema, but it is pure and superb entertainment as well as a delightful homage to a golden age of Hollywood cinema. An unsophisticated whodunit, the film nevertheless delivers on plot but is more importantly full of marvellous moments, ravishing sets, costumes and glamorous actresses playing off each other wonderfully. It is a pity that, without English subtitles the special French Deluxe edition will not be accessible to everyone, as there are many extras that are unlikely to be licensed across to any English or American edition. The film will be in cinemas at the end of November however and is well worth a viewing.