Fran‡ois Ozon's 8 Women is the French equivalent of an "event" film--or, at the very least, a more upscale answer to VH1's annual "divas" gala. Here, for the first time, is our chance to see several of France's most renowned and beautiful female stars sharing the screen, in a musical murder-mystery romp that's like a cross between Jacques Demy and Pedro Almodžvar. This unique confection from one of the country's most gifted and prolific young filmmakers is sheer, outlandish fun.
The action all takes place within an elegantly appointed country home presided over by Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), the stylish wife of businessman Marcel. The estrogen-filled '50s household also includes Gaby's wheelchair-bound mother (Danielle Darrieux); Gaby's sharp-tongued, unhappy spinster sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); sprightly daughter Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier); formidable housekeeper Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard), and comely but insolent chambermaid Louise (Emmanuelle Bart). The morning after Gaby's adorable elder daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) returns from her studies in England for a Christmas visit, tragedy interrupts the holiday cheer, as Marcel is discovered murdered in his bed. The phones are dead, the car won't start, snow is piling up outside, and the women conclude that the murderer must be among them--not excluding a latecomer to the intrigue, Marcel's seductive sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant).
Ozon's tone lets us know the mystery is never meant to be taken all that seriously: The performances are broad and iconically self-aware, and each of the eight stars gets to stop the action and perform a popular French song. Ozon originally wanted to do a remake of Clare Boothe Luce's celebrated play The Women, but instead turned to revamping a 1960s French play by Robert Thomas. The structure is clever, and there are two neat surprises at the end, but in Ozon's version, it's the subsidiary pleasures that really count. Where else can you see the eternally glamorous Deneuve in a catfight with the statuesque Ardant? Or watch Deneuve club octogenarian star Darrieux unconscious with a bottle of wine? Sometimes, all eight actresses share the frame at once--a dazzling sight that's as gratifying as any summer visual effect.
In short, the movie is a lark. It's Ozon's chance to pay tribute to old Hollywood high style, particularly as practiced by the likes of Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk, along with that master of fizzy French musicals, Jacques Demy. And for his actresses, it's an occasion to celebrate their own fabulousness, and stretch a little, too. None of the stars (with the exception of old pro Darrieux) is an accomplished singer, but all their numbers are charming. Ardant is especially stunning in a Rita Hayworth-inspired solo, Deneuve has fun playing off her trademark cool reserve, and Huppert (in the movie's most comic performance) gets to make a remarkable transformation from dowdy to dazzling. Though largely confined to one set (like Ozon's previous Water Drops on Burning Rocks), the movie is never visually stagnant, with Jeanne Lapoirie's cinematography recapturing the look of vintage Technicolor. A delirious movie party, 8 Women is one "women's picture" everyone can enjoy.