As our festive treat to you this year, a celebration of the glorious lesbian camp of Isabelle Huppert's French festive fave 8 Femmes, courtesy of Marion Jochmans.
Twenty years before Clea Duvall’s lesbian Christmas dramedy Happiest Season, French director François Ozon had already gifted the world with the deliciously queer 8 Femmes; a story of eight women snowbound in their family mansion during the Christmas holidays. Set in the 1950s, the story follows Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) as she returns to her family home in the French countryside for Christmas only to find that her father, Marcel, has been murdered the night before. As the blizzard outside would have prevented the killer from entering and leaving the property without a trace, they conclude that the murderer must still be in the house – each character becomes a suspect: Suzon and her younger sister, Catherine; their mother and Marcel’s wife, Gaby; his mother in-law, Mamy; his sister in-law, Augustine; his sister, Pierette; the housemaid, Louise; the cook, Madame Chanel.
While the leading man lies face-down with a knife in his back, the women turn to accusing – and desiring – one another. In one stunning scene, Augustine (Isabelle Hupert), until then, portrayed as a bitter spinster aunt, descends the main staircase in a tight blue dress after an off-screen makeover. There is no narrative function to this makeover as the women are trapped inside, but it adds layers of lesbian spectatorial pleasure. The camera slowly moves up her body as she walks down, performing this newfound sensuality for a group of women. When she arrives at the bottom, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) looks her up and down. The camera follows her gaze, and the audience admires Augustine through the eyes of another woman.
Released in 2002, 8 Femmes is a perfect product of its time. The New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, as described by lesbian film scholar B. Ruby Rich in her book of the same name, had brought an alternative way of portraying queer sexualities on screen; ones that focused on pastiche, irony, and a reworking of history. The aim was not to portray positive images of queer people nor to disavow the stereotypes, but to offer a more nuanced and complex narrative. Simultaneously, mainstream media had started capitalising on images of lesbians. “Lesbian chic” was in full-swing, as K.D. Lang adorned covers of magazines such as Vanity Fair and New York.
This was fertile ground for the openly gay director François Ozon. With its extravagant set design, blending of genres (murder-mystery, dark comedy, even musical), and celebrity cast, 8 Femmes became an instant classic in the French-speaking world, opening at #3 in 493 cinemas, and grossing $5,246,358 in the opening weekend.
Adapted from the 1958 French play by Robert Thomas Huit Femmes, the film mimics the cinematic and aesthetic conventions of the time period in which it is set: the 1930-40s melodramas or “woman’s film”, and the technicolour aesthetic that accompanied them. The woman’s picture, as Mary Ann Doane explains, is not a specific genre, per se, but rather a category of films that were directed towards a female audience. In a play on the genre, melodrama is ever present in 8 Femmes and the film is shot entirely in “the woman’s domain”: the home. By using a stage-like, over-the-top bourgeois interior as a space for subversion and queer desire, the set fulfils its lesbian camp ambition; the home becomes a place for radical transformation outside of patriarchal expectations.
The current notion of camp – as a sensibility and a form of artistic expression – is derived from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’. Described as being anti-serious, playful, with a love of exaggeration and artifice, camp quickly became associated with a specific gay male subculture. But what theorists have often overlooked is that queer women can, and do, find just as much pleasure in depictions of feminine sexual excess.
Though most characters in 8 Femmes are introduced as heterosexual, this changes as the narrative progresses. One hour into the film, Chanel (Firmine Richard) professes her love for Pierette (Fanny Ardent). In that moment, the film does what classical Hollywood was never allowed to do: lesbian desire becomes explicit. This scene is hard to watch as the other characters react badly to this: Chanel’s homosexuality is used as a punchline, another trait to marginalise her as the only black and plus-sized character. Despite this, the queer revelations snowball – over half of the eight women on screen express queer desire and, with each mention of it, it becomes more normalised. Boundaries are blurred, drawing attention to the performativity of gender and sexuality.
After admitting to her affair with the deceased Marcel, the maid Louise tells Gaby, “Au fond, nous avons partagées la même intimité.” (“We’ve shared the same bed.”) Although referring to Marcel, her tone and proximity insinuate having shared intimacy with Gaby herself. Gaby adds to the homoeroticism by asking Louise to stop talking because her children are in the room, but Louise continues, “Monsieur’s death changes nothing, I remain devoted to serving you.” In her foundational work, Sontag argues, “Camp is a mode of seduction – one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti.” Indeed, camp is reserved for those who have a certain degree of cultural capital – 8 Femmes acknowledges lesbian culture in spades.
Despite continuous titillation, there is only one on-screen lesbian kiss, between Gaby and Pierrette. Catherine Deneuve had, by then, played a total of four queer characters across her career, garnering the status of a lesbian icon in the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, Ozon’s decision to have Pierette share this kiss was because it would have made the playwright furious, in an interview he joked: “[Robert Thomas] absolutely hated lesbians and [...] identified with Pierrette the most! But that is the beauty of adapting the work of deceased authors, [...] they can’t come and tell you off!” Adaptations are full of queer potential as they copy, but do not replicate.
This potential is especially apparent in the choice of musical numbers. Instead of monologues to convey their inner desires, each character performs a song. These are not original numbers, but covers of popular French music from the 1960s and ‘70s. By sourcing music from the repertoires of French singers associated with queer culture, including Sylvie Vartan, Marie Laforêt, Françoise Hardy and Dalida, Ozon adds another layer of intertextuality.
If it sounds messy, it’s because it is. As Sontag said, camp is good because it’s awful. In 8 Femmes, contradictions are rampant and the narrative refuses to flow; the bourgeois excess in the film continuously splits the narrative and draws attention to the artificial structure of cinema. The songs move the story out of realism and into fantasy: the lightning changes and characters become spectators alongside the camera and the audience. It creates a distance, and a reminder that what we are witnessing is a spectacle.
Over the past few decades, feminist film theory has held on to psychoanalysis and to Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze when analysing film, which often excludes queer readings. Mulvey argued that cinematic images address a heterosexual male spectator and that images of women, therefore, exist to satisfy the male gaze. As no man is present on screen in 8 Femmes, the dominant gaze in the narrative is female; we are watching women watch women – not necessarily positive images of them, instead visions of exaggerated femininity with questionable morals and intentions. 8 Femmes gives lesbian viewers the ability to re-appropriate the homoerotic pleasures usually offered to the heterosexual male spectator.
There is lesbian joy to be found in Ozon’s spectacle of excess. After the resurgence of period dramas in the 2010s such as Carol, Ammonite, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, revisiting 8 Femmes today is refreshing. By exposing the social normativity of compulsory heterosexuality the film deconstructs what Judith Butler describes in Gender Trouble as the heterosexual matrix — the connection between binary sex, gender, and sexuality. By subverting the classic Hollywood melodrama where queer women were relegated to the proverbial closet, 8 Femmes allows them to come out, as it were, and fashion a mainstream lesbian gaze. A merry Christmas indeed.
Marion Jochmans (@marionjochmans) has an MA in Gender and Media and mostly writes about queer representation in film. She runs the LGBTQ+ travel blog Gay Girls Guide with her partner, and is an amateur film programmer for Movies at Medina in Brighton & Hove.