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Friday, September 27, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Frothy '8 Women' is a delicious French musical confection

Seattle Times movie critic

"8 Women"


***
With Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Bart, Fanny Ardant, Danielle Darrieux, Virginie Ledoyen, Firmine Richard, Ludivine Sagnier. Directed by Franois Ozon, from a screenplay by Ozon and Marina de Van, based on the play by Robert Thomas. 113 minutes. Rated R for some sexual content. In French with English subtitles. Harvard Exit.

François Ozon's musical murder mystery "8 Women" is pure theatrical artifice — so much so that at the end, the eight-woman ensemble joins hands in a line, as if to take a curtain call.

It's a big puffy French pastry of a movie: light, airy, silly, not especially memorable, but delicious while it lasts.

"As the Snow Falls," or a similarly soapy French equivalent, might have been a more evocative title for this over-the-top melodrama. Eight women are stranded on a snowy 1950s night in a French country home; each is styled to within an inch of her life in colorful '50s kitsch; and each is a suspect in the murder of the patriarch of the household.

Was it his elegant wife, Gaby (Catherine Deneuve, with perfect coal-black '50s brows that elegantly punctuate her surprised expressions), whose love for her husband was questionable? Or his cranky sister-in-law Augustine (Isabelle Huppert, with hair so poufy she appears to be wearing a small sofa on her head)? Or his angelically pink-clad elder daughter, Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen, looking like Audrey Hepburn in a pointy bra), or perky younger daughter, Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier)? His wheelchair-bound mother-in-law (Danielle Darrieux)? His mysterious sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant)? Or was it one of the domestics: the faithful longtime housekeeper Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard) or the seductive new maid Louise (Emmanuelle Béart)?

Of course, the mere presence of the sultry Béart pertly pouting in a French-maid costume should be enough to inspire unseemly beret-wearing and long lines at the box office. But Ozon (whose marvelous last feature, "Under the Sand," provided a showcase for Charlotte Rampling) clearly adores all eight of these women. And he's encouraged them to vamp for the camera, act to the rafters, shriek at fever pitch, heave their bosoms, totter about in stilettos, indulge in catfights (including one that turns erotic ... meeoooow, indeed), and have what looks to be the time of their lives.

The musical numbers — there are eight, with each actress doing her own singing — are rearranged versions of French pop songs, mostly from the '60s. As in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," having the cast perform their own songs inspires mixed results — Deneuve, in particular, looks a bit uncomfortable — but awkward charm abounds. Ledoyen bounces enthusiastically through her number, and Darrieux, a grande dame of French cinema, does lovely work with her sad ballad.

Inspired by the excesses of '50s cinema, both American (Douglas Sirk's melodramas and MGM's Technicolor musicals both readily come to mind as inspirations) and French, "8 Women" is froth personified.

There's little or no message here; it's a goofy experiment in style. When Ardant makes her entrance, swathed in a black trenchcoat and enough crimson lipstick to paint an entire town red; or the two young daughters, in sherbet colors, vamp their way through a song; or Huppert, in cat's-eye glasses, trumpets "NEVER!" — well, merci pour les bonbons, Monsieur Ozon.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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