Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: 8 Women (2002, Francois Ozon)

(Originally posted on 8 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

One of my favorite films so far this decade is Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, a highly stylized film that has as many passionate detractors as supporters. A major point of contention is the way Ozon adds scenes in which each cast member performs a pop song to what is ostensibly a locked-room murder mystery in the Agatha Christie tradition. The musical numbers are pretty low-fi, and Ozon focuses more on the way his actresses perform the songs rather than dazzling the audience.

The naysayers believe that the songs distract from the plot, or worse, derail it. However, as a fan of the film, I believe they’re integral to the movie- in movies of this sort, the investigation ends up unearthing secrets in the characters involved, and Ozon and his actresses use the songs to reveal previously-buried depths to their characters. This is most obvious in the song performed by Isabelle Huppert, entitled “Message Personnel.”

A lot of the fun of Ozon’s film comes from the stars riffing on their signature roles. Unlike many films, 8 Women assumes that the audience is familiar with its stars’ filmographies. And why not? With a cast including Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Danielle Darrieux, and Emmanuelle Beart, anyone who’s familiar with French cinema should know these actresses’ films fairly well.

If Huppert -- one of the world’s great actresses -- can be said to have an archetypal role, it’s that of the enigmatic, unhinged loner whose stone face keeps reality at bay, which is why her performance as spinsterish Aunt Augustine comes as such a shock at the outset of the film. A far cry from the cool, appraising sorts Huppert tends to play, Augustine is something of a drama queen, prone to temper tantrums and never without a tart rejoinder, with much of her bile reserved for the sister who has taken her in. Huppert is an absolute hoot in the role, with her exaggerated facial expressions and outsize gestures, but it’s so gloriously stylized that we know it’s only a matter of time before the real “Isabelle” emerges.

Naturally, this opportunity manifests itself once a dead body has been discovered. The women in the house begin accusing each other of the crime, and after a particularly angry row between Augustine and big sister Gaby (Deneuve), Gaby storms out. All eyes are on Augustine, and the women who remain demand that she account for herself. It’s here that the Augustine’s high-strung personality falls away, and Huppert strides calmly to the piano.

Along with being a peerless actress, Huppert is also a trained pianist, and she had starred in The Piano Teacher the previous year. So when Ozon wittily spoofs the conventions of scenes of this type by never showing Huppert’s face in the same shot as her playing hands, it’s slyly funny. But what really sells the song “Message Personnel” and the scene around it is Huppert’s low-key, yet intense rendition of the song. Her delivery of the spoken lines that begin the song feels unsure, almost apologetic, as she intones, “I cannot tell you/ that I love you… perhaps?”

Then halfway through the song, Augustine stands up from the piano and directly faces the four women who are witnessing her sung confession. She pantomimes the lyrics as she sings, “we’ll flee the past for we can live tomorrow/come and rescue me.” The capper comes when Ozon cuts to a close-up of Huppert’s face as she sings the song’s final lines:

When every day is just another yesterday,
Think of me,
Think of me,
But if you…

What I love most about this moment is how it distills the Huppert screen persona -- unable to communicate her love for others, she suffers in silence. In this final close-up, we can actually see the tears welling up in her eyes as the song progresses, and Huppert punctuates the tentative final lyric by closing her eyes, causing the tears to roll down her cheeks.

Now, I’ve never met Isabelle Huppert in real life, so I can’t attest to how closely the Augustine who gets revealed in “Message Personnel” is to her actual personality. But that’s beside the point. Francois Ozon cast each actress in 8 Women not merely for her formidable talent but also the baggage she brought from previous iconic roles. When we learn the truth about Augustine through her song, we’re merely seeing the Huppert we’ve gotten to know from The Piano Teacher and her decades-long collaboration with Claude Chabrol. It’s the same with all of the stars of 8 Women -- Ozon doesn’t seek to show their true natures, but rather to reinforce the star personas they’ve constructed over the years.

In our current media-saturated age, we are able to scrutinize the lives of stars more closely than ever before. With 8 Women, Ozon seems to be asking why we would ever want to. When we see a star performing, we don’t respond to her personal behavior -- whether we know about it not -- but rather the image she conveys through her performance. Plenty of classical movie stars were later revealed to have been troubled or difficult in real life, but when they’re making magic onscreen, it doesn’t matter. Ozon’s acknowledgement of this is only one of the wonders of 8 Women, but it’s certainly one of the more relevant ones today.

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