FROM comedy to drama, the recent French Film Festival in Manila featured films commonly teeming with intrigue, mystery, and betrayal. The festival opened with Amelie last June 7 and closed with Se Souvenir des Belles Choses last June 25.

Noticeably, strong female characters dominate most of the films, two of which were adapted from popular French plays and deal with manipulative females—8 Femmes and La Fausse Suivante.

8 Femmes

The term “femme fatales” takes a whole new meaning with Francois Ozon’s 8 Femmes where a man literally dies because of the eight women in his life.

On Christmas morning, a doe grazes at the small tuft of grass in the snowy ground, snowflakes falling on leafless trees. This is the deceptively peaceful backdrop that sets the stage for intrigue in an isolated manor in the French countryside.

Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), a young debutante studying in England, comes home for the holidays. She enthusiastically kisses her mother Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), her grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), her Aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), her little sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), and her nanny Chanel (Firmine Richard). Everyone seems to get along fine with just a few bickerings between sisters Gaby and Augustine, until the maid Louise (Emanuelle Béart) enters the master’s bedroom with a tray and finds the family patriarch stabbed dead. With the arrival of the man’s sister, Pierette (Fanny Ardant), the film becomes a mystery thriller and everyone becomes a suspect. Is it the greedy grandmother? Or Gaby, the frigid wife? Her spinster sister Augustine? One of the two young daughters Suzon and Catherine? The girls’ nanny Chanel? The insolent maid Louise? Or his sister Pierette? Everyone is hiding something and a likely motive as well. As the story progresses, startling revelations are made and the suspense intensifies.

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The cast gives excellent performances, the most notable of which are Deneuve, Darrieux, and Huppert.

Deneuve once again portrays the role of the ice queen with her character Gaby. Beautiful yet indifferent to her husband, Gaby’s character fits Deneuve perfectly with her cool demeanor.

Darrieux as the alcoholic, handicapped grandmother is funny and entertaining. Meanwhile, Huppert gives an outstanding performance by giving perspective to a one-sided character—that of the self-righteous spinster Augustine—and turning it into a lonely, passionate woman overshadowed by her glamorous sister.

Director Ozon opts to contain the scenes inside the house, completing atmosphere of “closed-door” mystery.

Aside from the usual elements of a mystery—severed telephone lines, covert glances, and suspicious coincidences, Ozon adds melodrama and comedy into the plot. When the drama or suspense heightens, the characters spontaneously break into song and turn into a moment of humor.

For lovers of a good mystery, or for anyone who just enjoys a laugh, this is the film for you.

La Fausse Suivante

Greed, deception, and seduction take center stage in La Fausse Suivante (The False Servant) by Benoit Jacquot. Set literally onstage, La Fausse Suivante is the story of a young heiress (Sandrine Kiberlain), who disguises herself as a knight in order to test the sincerity of her groom-to-be, Lelio (Mathieu Amalric). She befriends Lelio and discovers that he is also engaged to another woman—the Countess (Isabelle Huppert). Lelio then asks his friend, the “knight”, for help in his scheme to break his engagement with the Countess. According to Lelio, the Countess is a fickle woman and would gladly give in with the right amount of seduction. The heiress agrees to the scheme to teach Lelio and the Countess a lesson. She then hires a drifter named Trivelin (Pierre Arditi) to pose as her servant and help with her plans.

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Metaphors and sarcasm often characterize the film’s dialogue. The characters are cynical and greedy for love, as the heiress and the Countess are, or for money, like Lelio and Trivelin.

In a simple film as this, a heavy burden is placed upon the actors’ capabilities. Remarkably, the cast performs consistently and manages to sustain the audiences’ interest inspite of the drab setting.

In terms of cinematography and lighting, director Jacquot is rather unimaginative. Camera angles vary mostly from medium to long shots, and are often static and boring. Filmed inside an empty, dim theater, only a single lamp held by the actors is used for lighting. Then, scenes spasmodically shift to the backstage and flood the screen with too much light. Nevertheless, the movie is loaded with witty repartees and fine acting.

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