Can You Survive at a French Estate with 8 Women? A Film Review of 8 Women by Christopher Wostenberg
The survey last semester requested that I review movies that pass the Bechdel Test. A quick synopsis of the test is a movie where at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man. While I have quite a few movies in my collection that pass this test, including All About Eve, Gone With the Wind, The Birds, and Nashville, one lesser known movie came to my mind first, 8 Women. This is a movie I did not know much about when I bought it, so I went in without much expectation. I picked it for a few reasons. First, it was a French language film. French films hold a special place with me because I took French in high school and watched quite a few in the class. Second, it had Catherine Deneuve, in my opinion one of the best French actresses of the latter half of the 20th century. Third, it was murder mystery comedy film, a genre that when done well can be very entertaining (but those examples are far and few between).
Like a stereotypical Agatha Christie murder mystery, the film takes place at a wealthy estate during the 1950s where the characters are trapped due to a snow storm. The patriarch of the family is found murdered, leaving all eight women of the household as suspects. First are the patriarch’s two daughters, Suzon and Catherine. His wife Gaby and her sister Augustine, along with their mother, Mamy, are also at the house. There is the victim’s sister, Pierrette. Finally, there are the two servants; Chanel the cook, and Louise the chambermaid. The film takes place mainly in the living room. As the movie progresses, the motive of each of the women is revealed until eventually the plot is unraveled. Throughout the film, each woman sings a song that portrays her characteristics. As it is a murder mystery, I will not give away more of the plot.
8 Women is great at being a fun musical where nothing is too serious even though there is a murder. This is nicely portrayed through various aspects of the film, but as to keep the movie as much as a surprise as possible, I will only discuss a few of them.
First, the setting of the film is confined to mainly the giant living room of the estate’s mansion during the holiday season. There is not much reason in the film specifically for setting it during Christmas other than to ensure that Suzon is home from school and to provide the snow that traps the characters in the house. Both of these reasons could easily be changed to fit the needs of the plot. For example, Suzon could be home for summer or the school is closed due to a fire. Likewise, instead of a snow storm, there could have been a thunder storm. But the holiday season stirs up the imagination of audience into fun and whimsy early on in the film.
Likewise, the living room setting allows for the opportunity for the women to sing, dance, play the piano and move around without being overly confined. I personally think of a living room as a place for entertainment and relaxation more so than any other space in a house. Also, the living room setting permits the feeling of the theatre, which is perfect for capturing the murder mystery atmosphere. The theatre aspect allows separation between the audience and the action n more so than movies in general, and thus making the murder not seem as serious to the audience.
Second, the movie coloring is bright and vibrant with all the characters in a different hue. The colors seem in contrast to the winter season, as quite a few of the colors provoke a spring feel of life and joy, especially Suzon in pink and Mamy in lavender. But the color tone is purposely selected to be bright, adding a cheerful and lively nature to the film regardless of the plot and setting. Note that if all the women wore dark winter tones, like black and grays, this would provide a more somber atmosphere to the movie and bring more attention to the death with a funeral feel. Additionally, the women’s colorful outfits highlight them against the background forcing them into the foreground of the story to ensure that the audience’s focus stays on the characters more than anything else. Finally, the utilization of different colors for each woman in the film is meant to complement the personalities more than anything else in the film.
Last but hardly least is the music of the film. Each actress gets her own song to sing. And you can tell each gets pure joy out of singing the song in the film. In general, the songs are upbeat adding to the attitude of a happiness and fun of the film. With the songs come some dancing, which again the actresses show enjoyment in performing. The act of song and dance itself adds lightness to films. For example, The Sound of Music takes place during the Nazi regime of Austria, but this depressing setting is swept under the proverbial rug through the effervescent nature of the songs and dances of the musical. Other examples include Little Shop of Horrors about a murderous plant, Chicago about a woman who killed her lover, and Fiddler on the Roof about a Jewish dairyman upholding traditions during the Tsar’s eviction of Jews from Russia. Like the other aspects, the musical nature of the film was chosen to provide lightness and whimsy to contrast with the murder mystery plot.
Favorite Scene: The scene that I remember the most from this film is the first musical number, “Papa t’es plus dans le coup,” which translates as “Dad, you’re out of touch.” Going into the movie without much expectation, this scene caught me by surprise. It provided a light- hearted nature to the film by introducing a catchy 1960s pop song into film. To the audience it provides a cue early on not to take the plot and movie too seriously, but instead relax and enjoy the ride.
Additionally, without being written for the film, the song perfectly captures the character of Catherine, a young energetic girl. The song itself is upbeat and lively, while the lyrics show how Catherine thinks her dad is out of touch with society and the household specifically. In fact, all the songs of the film are chosen in the same manner, to reveal the character of the 8 women both in musical style and through the lyrics. I would note that the dancing is not great in the scene, but seems realistic to the characters instead of Hollywood or Bollywood musicals where only trained dancers would be able to perform the routine.
Hopefully, I have not spoiled too many of the surprises of this film that made it so entertaining for me the first time I watched it. As this movie is not as famous as some of my other choices, I don’t have any other reviews to recommend reading except Roger Ebert’s. While it might not be as famous as the other films I have reviewed, it is still a pleasure (maybe, a guilty pleasure) to watch. I do wish to have interested some of you in watching the film as this is a film I have not talked to too many other cinephiles about. And in answer to the question posed in the title of this film review, I think I could survive at a French estate with these 8 women and have a great time in the process.
Recently, I have been reviewing a lot of movies from the 21st century, so I have decided for my next review I will look at a film that is roughly 100 years old. And that film will be Charlie Chaplin’s first feature length directorial film which he also stars in, Shoulder Arms.
As usual, I leave you with a movie quote. This time the quote comes from the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland and is spoken by Anna Hathaway as the White Queen, “You cannot live your life to please others. The choice must be yours, because when you step out to face that creature, you will step out alone.”