- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

The young French filmmaker Francois Ozon seemed to outdistance his peers by a vast margin while illuminating the inner life of a bereft widow in "Under the Sand." So perhaps a masterpiece of psychological realism should earn you the whimsical holiday from authenticity and empathy that permeates Mr. Ozon's elaborately superficial system of illusion in "8 Women." The new movie is undeniably a switch, but I'm not sure it's an irresistible reversal of style and content.

Coincidentally, the plot of "8 Women," a parodistic murder mystery that isolates eight suspects at a snowbound country estate, is set during a token Christmas holiday. The time frame might be described as vintage Technicolor, although the vintage is mostly second-generation, the late 1950s or early 1960s.

There also is a man of the house to mourn: a wealthy patriarch named Marcel, glimpsed in fleeting, reverse-angle flashbacks after being introduced "dead in his bed with a knife in his back," an admirable sample of pentameter.

The sometimes grieving and frequently spiteful suspects consist of daughters Suzon and Catherine, played respectively by Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier; wife Gaby, played by Catherine Deneuve; sister Pierrette, played by Fanny Ardant; spinster sister-in-law Augustine, played by Isabelle Huppert; mother-in-law Mamy, played by Danielle Darrieux; and domestics Louise and Chanel, respectively Emmanuelle Beart and Firmine Richard.

This ensemble represents four generations of French film actresses. Three of them Miss Darrieux, Miss Deneuve and Miss Beart have been the pre-eminent beauties and heartthrobs of certain decades. Miss Darrieux and Miss Deneuve, cast as mother and daughter in three earlier movies, also share a famous costume soap opera, "Mayerling." The 1936 version co-starred Charles Boyer and Miss Darrieux, then in her late teens. The 1968 remake co-starred Omar Sharif and Miss Deneuve.

Evidently, Mr. Ozon had hoped to do an update of Claire Booth Luce's cattish classic "The Women," originally filmed by George Cukor in 1939. He found the rights unavailable but was advised of an obscure French play of the early 1960s that provided him with a useful title, setting and array of stereotypes.

The synthesis also employs song interludes: Every character gets an appropriate ditty or torch song from the French pop storehouse. Miss Darrieux proves the most fortunate in "There Is No Happy Love," derived from a Louis Aragon poem set to music by George Brassens. A couple of numbers also recruit the other cast members as back-up hummers or dancers. One of the conceits is that everyone loves a song break. All rivalries and estrangements are postponed for the duration of ensemble numbers.

It's possible to savor "8 Women" the French title, "8 Femmes," really didn't require a translation as an alternately droll and outrageous exercise in decor, costuming, vanity and temperament. The problem is that the pretty-poison facetiousness of the concept begins to acquire monotonous and stagnant features as well.

Just when you fear that they've smothered the production, an inspired slapstick encounter between Miss Deneuve and Miss Darrieux becomes a picture-saver. It restores a vigorous farcical tone, and this second wind allows the movie to breeze confidently toward a denouement, which solves the mystery with gratifying impudence and logic.

The movie provides consistently amusing showcases for Miss Ardant and Miss Huppert and a revealing one for Miss Sagnier, who appeared in an earlier Ozon feature that wasn't distributed in the United States. Her fanatic kid sister is the best surprise of the show, a self-appointed sleuth who miscalculates while putting her elders at a disadvantage.

The decision to let every perversion that lingers in the subtext of vintage melodramas about devious or feuding women surface in the course of this plush spoof leads to a memorable payoff: a wrestling-cuddling match between Miss Deneuve and Miss Ardant. The remark, "We were just chatting," may be forever mocked by its amorous context in "8 Women."

At 85, Miss Darrieux, remembered most fondly as the heroine of Max Ophuls' superlative costume romance "The Earrings of Madame de ," released half a century ago, remains full of expressive vitality and mischief. Her eyes are as haunting as ever, and her comic timing is better than you expect, especially when exiting Mamy's wheelchair.

The movie has no shortage of picturesque diversions and incidental amusements. It remains to be seen if what it has will seem worth revisiting and savoring as time goes by. I suspect that once, or maybe twice, will be sufficient to appreciate "8 Women."


TITLE: "8 Women"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; frequent allusions to homicide and depravity)

CREDITS: Directed by Francois Ozon. Screenplay by Mr. Ozon and Marina De Van, based on a play by Robert Thomas. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes


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