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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002

Murder, she not only wrote but also sang

8 Femmes

Rating: * * * *
Director: Francois Ozon
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: French
Opens Nov. 23

Watching Francois Ozon's "8 Femmes," I became convinced of what a filmmaker needs most of all: the wherewithal to get his cast to do whatever he wishes. This is certainly true of Ozon, who staged the brilliant comeback of Charlotte Rampling in "Sous le sable," filmed sans makeup and soft lighting.

News photo
(Counterclockwise from right) Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart, Firmine Richard, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludvine Sagnier, and Danielle Darrieux inFrancois Ozon's "8 Femmes"

Rampling later said in an interview that initially she was "appalled to have to work with this rude youngster," but then she saw his point of view and surrendered herself. Imagine getting Rampling to surrender anything.

Now with "8 Femmes," Ozon proves he can get not one but -- count 'em -- eight star actresses to do the same. Among them are such formidable names in French cinema as Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux and Emmanuelle Beart. Wait till you see what Ozon gets them to do and with what glee they do it.

"8 Femmes" is also Ozon's regal tribute to the technicolor Hollywood films of the '50s, when primary colors seemed to jump out of the screen and lick your eyes, when characters really "acted" with a lot of gesturing, and dialogue was a neat, back-and-forth exchange. To top it off, "8 Femmes" is a period detective thriller (the kind Agatha Christie used to write), involving just a single corpse in a silk dressing gown, stabbed elegantly between the shoulder blades. Such is the world that these eight women, and only these women, inhabit. Almost two hours in their company without a break is heavenly; but it could also be too rich and filling, like a delicious full course French dinner that goes on and on.

All of the film takes place in the mansion of a wealthy entrepreneur. The only man in the household, he lives surrounded by six women: his wife, her sister and mother, their younger daughter and two maids. One December morning, his eldest daughter returns home from England where she had been sent to study, and his sister comes to pay a visit.

Trouble is, the man turns up dead in his bed with a knife lodged in his back. In a panic, the women try to phone the police -- but of course the line has been cut off and the car won't start and the heavy snowfall makes it impossible to even open the front gates. Who killed "Papa" and why? And why does everyone seem to be guarding some secret? Hey, they just don't make whodunits like this anymore.

Apart from the delight of detection, many movie-lovers will appreciate the various references to the golden oldies which Ozon has laid out like Easter eggs. Witness the costumes, all inspired (if not actually copied) from Hollywood classics, like the wardrobe of the younger daughter Catherine (Sagnier), which is almost exactly what Sandra Dee was wearing in "An American in Paris." The victim's sister (Ardant) appears in a stunning haut couture dress that harks back to Ava Gardner in "The Barefoot Contessa." And when she does her song-and-dance routine, the choreography is an unabashed tribute to the dance scene of Rita Hayworth in "Gilda."

Yes, Ozon pushes the envelope by making this a musical as well, complete with the straightforward yet sappy song lyrics you associate with "Singin' in the Rain" and "Sound of Music." Every actress gets up and does her thing whether she had prior training in music or not -- even Deneuve, who is reported to have resisted to the last minute (despite the fact that she once sang on a Serge Gainsbourg album). And you'll know why when she starts the first stanza. But what a privilege to see her do this, albeit with obvious reluctance and discomfort.

The ones who really seem to enjoy it are Emmanuelle Beart as the sexy maid Louise, and Darrieux as the grandmother, "Mamy," -- it's actually a shock to discover what a wonderful singing voice Darrieux has at 85.

But don't think for a minute that Ozon is content with simply duplicating the texture and ambience of Hollywood's golden age. While paying reverent homage to this era, he scatters chunks of parody and cynical plot twists. He pokes ruthless fun at the life of the upper class. And he sets off small explosions of bizarre surprises, like a long, passionate kiss between Ardant and Deneuve on the hearth rug, their elegant high heels intertwined.

No doubt Ozon's name will go down in history for getting the pair, once fierce rivals, to do this, but the question that plagues us (and other directors, I'm sure) is: Why him? What does he have that others don't? This probably is the most compelling mystery of all.

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