Murder most female

Movie of the week: Director Fran�ois Ozon has taken a creaky old country house mystery in the Agatha Christie mould and reworked it with the cream of French female acting talent, writes Shaun de Waal.

August 8, 2003

Fran�ois Ozon is a French director who, despite his relative youth (he was born in 1967), has already made about 20 movies. We haven�t seen many of them in South Africa, though the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals did favour us a couple of years ago with two, the widely different Sitcom and Water Drops on Burning Rocks. (We seemed to have missed his later offering, Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling. Pity.)

Sitcom is an amusing update of the theme of Pier Paolo Pasolini�s Teorema, in which the arrival of an outsider in a closed family environment sets off all sorts of (mostly sexual) transformations and revelations. Water Drops on Burning Rocks is Ozon�s adaptation of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder play from the 1970s, dealing with a tortuous love triangle that has something in common with Joe Orton�s Entertaining Mr Sloane.

As the plethora of proper nouns in the above paragraph indicates, Ozon�s films are full of references to other films, filmmakers and artists. He�s that kind of director � intensely conscious of cinematic history and precedent, unwilling to approach his job with the naivety that breeds dullness and clich� in so much Hollywood product. Rather, he uses the clich�s and devices of the past in a self-aware manner, making his movies likely to appeal to so-called film buffs, or at least those of a particular sensibility.

That�s by way of a warning to those who are irked by such arch reflexivity in the movies, though it could be argued that the big Hollywood blockbusters are the most self-reflexive kind of movies possible, except that they hide it. Ozon wears his self-consciousness on his sleeve, which gives his movies a distinctly campy tone.

This is particularly true of 8 Women. Ozon has taken a creaky old country house mystery in the Agatha Christie mould and reworked it with the cream of French female acting talent. From the start, 8 Women is stylised to within an inch of its life � this is the kind of movie that, when Catherine Deneuve stubs out a cigarette, gives us a cutaway to the ashtray.

The snow-bound chateau where the movie is set, and which we see in the long, circling opening shot, is so stagey, so inert, that for a moment one thinks the movie is animated. But that�s about all we see of the house from the outside: the rest of the movie is firmly located inside, and Ozon has done nothing to make it less stagey or less theatrical. In fact, he has emphasised its staginess, has encouraged his actors to give caricatural, larger-than-life performances � and then he�s turned it into a musical as well.

Eight women live with or are connected to one man, and he, we discover early in the movie, has just been murdered. Given the fact that the house is snow-bound, the killer is likely to have been one of the eight women, so this is what you might call a closed-house mystery.

It appears to be set in the 1950s, so the clothes are all gorgeously over-the-top. Wearing the clothes are Deneuve (the dead man�s wife), his daughters (Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier), his sister (Fanny Ardent), his sister-in-law and mother-in-law (Isabelle Huppert and Danielle Darrieux), the cook (Firmine Richard) and the chambermaid (Emanuelle B�art). They are all involved in various forms of chicanery, all implicated in some way in the death, and the plot whizzes along with a series of revelations and surprises, some rather absurd but no less engaging for that. The closed-house murder mystery meets the domestic melodrama meets farce meets the musical.

Deneuve is the delight of the movie. In some ways sending up herself and her image of aristocratic hauteur, she is nonetheless utterly commanding. Who else can dance, sing, freak out, faint and engage in a girl-fight without in any way compromising her impeccable elegance? Even when her hair is mussed, it looks fantastic.

Second only to Deneuve in the enjoyment stakes is Isabelle Huppert, who is also playing off earlier roles, or one in particular � that of her repressed Austrian spinster in The Piano Teacher. Here, Huppert is a bitter old maid with rigorously tied-back hair and cat�s eye glasses, obviously sexually frustrated and keen to take it out on everyone else. She is hilarious.

But then so are they all. Maybe 8 Women is not deep and meaningful, and it will certainly annoy those who dislike the arch and the artificial, but it�s a great deal of sophisticated fun. Cherchez la femme!



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