Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Review: "8 Women" (2002)

People like to point to "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" as indicators of a revival in the Hollywood musical genre. This is both correct and incorrect. The spirit of the musicals that featured Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire was unabashedly upbeat, and some might say that it's an attitude that can no longer be featured in this modern world. "Chicago" was, for all its catchy tunes and dance numbers, a very darkly cynical film about murder, corruption, scandal and celebrity. "Moulin Rouge" was closer in spirit with it's opposing quartet of Beauty, Freedom, Truth and Love, but it felt more like an LSD (or absinthe, if you like) trip than the simple joys of Gene Kelly gadding about in the rain. So, has there been anything recently that's come closer to that feeling?

I would say the French film "8 Women" has come closest yet. Picture if you will a snowbound cottage somewhere in France. Within in this cottage are the eight women of the title, all of them being of some relation to the master of the house, Marcel. Suddenly, he is found murdered and all eight women begin to suspect one another. In true mystery fashion, the roads are all blocked and the phones do not work. So the eight women are forced to stay the night together, and in the process learn about one another.

There are eight musical numbers in all with one for each character. The styles range from teeny bopper ("Papa, you're behind the times", which is perhaps the most infectious tune), to sultry bar song ("What's the use of living free", where Fanny Ardant does her best "Gilda" impression, which is pretty damn good). Unlike "Chicago" and "Moulin Rouge", which both had a showbiz-type setting, this film is people just breaking out into song in the most ordinary of places. But all the songs are expressions of their thoughts, so we accept the contrivance.

Speaking of the setting, the film takes a step towards an old fashioned feeling by structuring itself like a lost Agatha Christie story. People who have been fortunate enough to see Christie's "The Mousetrap" on stage will definitely experience some flashbacks while watching this film. The cabin where all the action takes place is spacious, colorful, brightly lit and is undeniably a studio set, which is part of the charm. There are places where it even surpassing "Down With Love" in accomplishing that perfect Hollywood retro 50's look.

The look of the film is spot on with the classic musicals, but obviously the subject matter is not. However, with this film, the murder mystery and skeletons-in-the-closet plot elements are not the main thing. "Chicago" and "Moulin Rouge" had overarching themes (Celebrity and Love, respectively) in their plots. "8 Women" is all about the music and nothing but. Does it make it shallow? Some might see it this way. But the true mark of a good film is if it does its job effectively, and "8 Women" succeeds as entertaining escapism.

Some people are just going to be dumbfounded by this film. That can't be helped. But some people are going to gush all over this film because of its pure entertainment vibe, with a French accent. It's a lot of damn fun.

Eight out of Ten

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