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[whitespace] '8 Women'
Photograph by Jean -Claude Moireau

Generation Gap: Virginie Ledoyen (left) makes a point with one of her elders, Fanny Ardant, in '8 Women.'

Pretty in Pink

François Ozon turns the drawing-room mystery into a musical in '8 Women'

By Richard von Busack

ALWAYS, ALWAYS, critics are on moviegoers' cases to lower their expectations. "It's a good movie, if you aren't expecting anything" is a motto that ought to be painted above the doors of the multiplex, just as "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" is carved on the gates of hell. In the case of François Ozon's new film, 8 Women, however, little expectations make for a pleasant surprise.

Ozon's Under the Sands, a celebration of Charlotte Rampling in her sunset years, was critically lionized to a degree I found hard to share. It seemed overrated compared to his earlier, better Water Drops on Burning Rocks. Taken from a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Water Drops on Burning Rocks is a game of psychosexual bridge played by two tricks, two hustlers, three lovers and one pimp--making four people total.

8 Women has much the same style. It is stagy to the max, art-decorated to a fare-thee-well and punctuated with out-of-nowhere musical sequences. Ozon is in thrall to vintage Hollywood. The title sequence refers to the all-female George Cukor comedy The Women.

The film is set in a snowbound house, a well-off manor in the country represented by a stage set daubed on a scrim with what looks like a paint-by-numbers kit. To add to the illusion of nonillusion, a live fawn nibbles the stage foliage of an evergreen. Inside this pretend chateau we discover a dead white male, the master of the house. There are seven suspects, all female; they are his family and servants, who, shall we say, are taking the tragedy well.

It's probably a case for a Madame Maigret, but while waiting for the eighth woman to show up, we investigate the suspects on our own. They include the daisy-fresh schoolgirl Suzon (Virigine Ledoyen); her egghead sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier); the maid Louise (Emmanuel Béart in the most finely turned picture of insolent servant since Emily Watson in Gosford Park); and Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard), the housekeeper with a secret.

Melodrama fans will prefer to finger the red-dressed, red-haired, madwoman aunt, Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), a hypochondriac with a spurious heart condition. Huppert can be subtle to a point, but she's unwieldy in broad comedy. In this age of specialization, an actress as creepily subtle as Huppert may not have it in her to be a comedian.

The deceased's mother, Mamy (Danielle Darrieux), might be guilty--who'd know better than a mother if her son belonged dead? How long has Darrieux been in the movies? She starred in Billy Wilder's directorial debut, in 1933, that's how long. But the principal suspect is the lady of the house, Madame Gaby herself, played by Catherine Deneuve.

When the eighth woman arrives, she turns out to be the family scandal: a stripper named Pierrette (played by the formidable Fanny Ardant). She's a chic man killer, with Rita Hayworth's treacherous gleaming smile and Ava Gardner's macha black eyes. Her modest striptease number reminds me of a story I once heard about Gypsy Rose Lee. Supposedly, Lee caused a sensation at a fancy luncheon merely by fiddling with the buttons of one of her gloves as she spoke. (To spell it out: it wasn't what she did as much as what she might do at any minute.)

Ardant's number is a showstopper, but when the cast bursts into song, most audiences will freeze with embarrassment. Every member of the house has a tune. Darrieux's number is sharply poignant; this classic actress nails down the film's purpose as an elegy to vanishing glamour. Deneuve's serenade to the lovelessness of her dead mate, "Toi, Jamais," shows us the actress at her best; she's an empress, not the ceramic figurine she was in Indochine and East/West. But the duet by the two juveniles is painful, and Béart's rock & roll number is on a par with most French rock music--that is, bad French rock doesn't translate well.

A major problem is that Ozon, trying to re-create high-style MGM, doesn't have a choreographer of the old school. The ladies improvise their moves, looking as awkward as the cast did in the most recent attempt to resurrect Gene Kelly, Kenneth Branagh's well-intended but failed Love's Labour's Lost.

The film is an oddity, but a charmer. In form, it's as juicy as those all-star Agatha Christie adaptations of the 1980s. It owes as much to Murder on the Orient Express as it does to The Women. The film is about how glamour is the only weapon a woman has, and it becomes more painfully difficult to pull the trigger as the years go by.

Times in cinema are such that sometimes all you can ask for is a brilliant pastiche--take the praise floating around Todd Haynes' newest film, Far From Heaven, which endeavors to out-Sirk Douglas Sirk. So few movies today come wrapped in a mink stole and carrying a cigarette holder that 8 Women can be forgiven for sinking into occasional awkwardness and pretty pink camp.

8 Women (R; 103 min.), directed by François Ozon, written by Ozon and Marina De Van, based on the play by Robert Thomas, photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie and starring Fanny Ardant, Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the October 2-9, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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