8 WOMEN directed by François Ozon, written by Ozon from the play by Robert Thomas, produced by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier, with Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard. A Séville Pictures release. 103 minutes. For review, venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 89. Rating: NNNN
François ozon breezes into the hotel room toting a tiny Chanel shopping bag. Tiny enough for something expensive, unnecessary and easily concealed.Through our 15 minutes together during the Toronto International Film Festival, he keeps the bag close to his feet, and his opinions even closer to his chest.
Arguably Europe's hottest director, Ozon keeps changing his face with each film. Sitcom was a farce worthy of Buñuel. Water Drops On Burning Rocks paid direct homage to Fassbinder's genius and cruelty. Then Ozon directed Charlotte Rampling in Under The Sand, which was oblique and parched enough to fit Antonioni's resume.
Now, 8 Women. It's an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, but splashed with bright music, colour and extra-fabulous costumery.
And in his most daring stroke yet, Ozon stacks his cast with four generations of French superstars: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart, Virginie Ledoyen, plus the young Ludivine Sagnier and the majestic Danielle Darrieux, who made her debut in 1931 and graced the great Ophüls films La Ronde and The Earrings Of Madame De.
The thrills in 8 Women are as explosive as they are calculated. This is a film designed, like Karl Lagerfeld, to make an impression.
"The first idea," Ozon says in his charming accent, "was to remake the film by Cukor, The Women. I saw it, and it was too American for me, and too old. And then I saw that the rights were taken by Julia Roberts. So it was not for me.
"So I found this play, written during the 60s, called Eight Women. It was very successful in France. But the play is very old fashioned and sticky? Ticky?"
Tacky, I offer.
"Tacky. It's very tacky. But I loved the plot. You know, eight women together, trapped in a house, and one of the eight is a killer. I thought it was a good idea to take the structure of the play, but fill it with my obsessions about women, about family."
"Which are very special," is all he'll say.
Moments later, he brushes aside my question about some gay male directors' love of female melodrama with nothing more than a sphinxy smile.
But 8 Women is rife with it. Deneuve calls the film not a celebration of women, but a celebration of actresses. And Ozon will admit that he's fascinated by artifice, in films and in women.
"Sometimes you see the truth of things better in an artificial world," he says. "If you enter this artificial world, you can see the reality of things easier."
That may explain the spectacular cat fight in 8 Women between Deneuve and Fanny Ardant. Both women were François Truffaut's lovers, and as funny as the scene is, it lays bare the streak of sadism that so often runs through a male director's worship of actresses.
Ozon says it took delicacy to work out his relationship with the women he hired.
"Before the shooting it was nice, because I had a personal relationship with each actress. We were one-to-one, speaking about the dance, about the music, about the character.
"But the first day of shooting was very difficult for me, because suddenly I was in front of the eight together. Suddenly I had to cut myself in eight.
"There are some actresses who need seduction. Some others want only to be close to you, to the mise-en-scène, to know what you want to do," he explains. "And there are some others who want to talk only about the character.
"Isabelle Huppert is very professional. She loves to work. She's very intense and she likes to do many, many takes. It's a real pleasure to work with her, because you can go very deeply into the character and she's not afraid to do crazy things.
"Catherine needs to be close to the mise-en-scène. It's not about the character, it's more about the film in general. I wasn't used to working like that with actors.
"For example, she likes to see the rushes. It's not to see her face, but to understand what I want to make. Because sometimes she didn't really understand. I've got the control and I know what the film will be, but it's really a male perspective on women. She might feel manipulated by me. Sometimes she was a little upset, because she's used to having a lot of power on a film. But in this film, I was the master!" he laughs.
"I had to be the master, you know, because with eight actresses, they could take the power, and it would have been a real nightmare. The film would have been a failure, I think, because when an actor takes the power in a film, it's never good for the film."
At the end of the interview, as Ozon sits for the photographer, I ask him one more time to explain his fascination with actresses.
"Monsters," he says, glancing away from the camera. "It's like Spielberg when he makes Jurassic Park."
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