The time is the nineteen-fifties, the place a French country mansion that is quickly being cut off by the snowfall. Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) arrives in the morning for the Christmas family gathering and greets her grandmother (Danielle Darrieux); the cook, Chanel (Firmine Richard) is also delighted to see her. Suzon’s aloof mother Gaby (Catherine Deneuve) is next to arrive in the living room, followed by her eccentric aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert). Suzon’s teenage sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) has just got up, and their father Marcel is still sleeping and not to be disturbed. The new maid, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) goes upstairs to his room to check on him, and the ladies downstairs are startled to hear her scream – she emerges from the room looking shocked, saying Marcel is lying in bed with a knife between his shoulder blades. He has been murdered…
Scripted by the director François Ozon from the play by Robert Thomas, 8 Femmes resembles an Agatha Christie murder mystery with musical numbers added for good measure. It also resembles a filmed play, with one large set being used for most of the action, which basically involves a lot of talk as the women realise that one of those present must be the murderer, as no one else has been seen entering or leaving the house (they would have heard the dogs, which we never see, barking). Looking great in sumptuous colours and (mostly) glamorous outfits, the cast represent various generations of France’s movie acting talent, from the earliest surviving (Darrieux) to the most recent at that time (Sagnier), and much of the enjoyment of the piece comes from seeing them pitted against other, due to them having been set up by the storyline to be rivals.
We never get a good look at Marcel, despite him being the character everyone in the cast revolves around, at best we see the back of his head in flashback. It seems that not only do the ladies have a strong connection with him, but also have a good reason for bumping him off as the labyrinthine plotting grows clearer. You’ll have noticed that there are only seven women so far, and that’s because the eighth arrives half an hour in, in the shape of Marcel’s sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant). She received an anonymous telephone call telling her that her brother had been killed, and has driven up to the house through the increasingly heavy snow to find out what was going on. But the telephone line in the house has been cut, so who could have made the call? And by the time they have worked out what she is doing there (Gaby had banned her from the house), they are effectively trapped in the place by the weather and unable to get help.
So the intrigue mounts up as the plot thickens. Financial troubles and affairs are revealed as the women have nothing to do but discuss their problems and try to work out who the killer could be. Flamboyant as they can be here, the acting styles of the cast never clash, but compliment each other, making what could have been rather repetitive – not five minutes goes by without another grand revelation – otherwise entertaining. Huppert gets the showiest role as the neurotic spinster who harboured romantic feelings for Marcel, and Ardant gets to play the vamp although she’s never seen seducing a man. There’s comedy to be enjoyed, from the over-the-top interplay to the sight of Deneuve smashing a bottle over the head of a wheelchair-bound (so she would have us believe) Darrieux and pushing her, unconscious, into the cupboard to keep her out of the way.
Then there’s the songs. Each actress is awarded their own moment in the limelight where they sing what’s on their mind, in a variety of styles. Sagnier and Ledoyen perform bouncy pop, while Ardant and Béart are given something more alluring and Deneuve and Richard get to pour their hearts out in more reflective ways. Huppert’s song, accompanied at the piano by herself, opens with a long monologue which might make you think she can’t sing and is avoiding the task, until she starts to trill. Actually, the musical aspect doesn’t add much except novelty and breaking up those acres of chit-chat, but it’s nice to hear. Any themes of class (Louise seems to bear a grudge against her employers which at first promises to be political), age or sex are danced around but never truly challenged, leaving a slightly too flimsy impression by the tragic, and too morose, finale, where what has really happened is blatantly apparent. The period setting makes 8 Femmes seem like something out of a time capsule with lesbianism and illegitimate children included, and while the cast add spice and vigour, there’s something distinctly dusty about the whole thing. Music by Krishna Levy.