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'8 Women'

A whodunit rich with intrigue

Friday, October 18, 2002

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Imagine an Agatha Christie murder mystery staged as a 1950s Technicolor musical. Cast some of France's greatest actresses as bickering relatives, throw in a couple of secretive servants and let them start clawing at each other.

 
 
"8 WOMEN"

RATING: R for some sexual content.

PLAYERS: Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart.

DIRECTOR: Francois Ozon.

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Francois Ozon's "8 Women," now at the Manor Theater, qualifies as another of the unconventional cinematic songfests that have cropped up in recent years. Neither as fantastical as "Moulin Rouge" nor in any way somber like "Dancing in the Dark," Ozon's film is consciously designed to resemble an arch homage to one of Douglas Sirk's slick 1950s melodramas, such as "The Magnificent Obsession" or "Imitation of Life."

But with not a male in sight (except for a dead one), "8 Women" penetrates its own sugary artificiality to deliver a few insights about the female of the species. This group is a diverse lot in age, temperament, experience and station. But as they dislodge each other's innumerable secrets and open themselves emotionally in song, they become less inscrutable -- yet always capable of surprising us and each other as they discover what they have in common.

Because of the film's one-room set and its density of dialogue, it comes as no surprise to learn that Ozon adapted it from a stage play, written by Robert Thomas. In what looks like a winter wonderland, the family has gathered to celebrate Christmas only to find poor Papa lying in bed with a knife in his back. The women soon realize one of them must be responsible.

Naturally, the worsening weather makes it impossible for anyone to leave. Inevitably, each of the women has a possible motive -- they almost seem to take delight in airing each other's dirty laundry -- as well as the opportunity.

But who could have done it: His mother-in-law (Darielle Darrieux), greedily guarding her stock certificates? His wife, Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), bourgeois and bored? His daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), perky and maybe a little too perfect? His younger daughter Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), hooked on mystery novels? Spinster sister-in-law Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), a harassing harridan? His sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), a "loose" woman whose eyes gleam in delight at all the accusations and distrust?

Or was it one of the servants: Louise (Emmanuelle Beart), a tart chambermaid, or Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard), a longtime family retainer who is more than she seems?

Each woman is dressed in her own brightly distinctive color, splashed vividly upon the screen by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie and costumer Pascaline Chavanne. The characters go through their practiced paces, play-acting at being nice until, suddenly, Gaby and her daughters suddenly break into a silly rock 'n' roll number.

Once the murder is discovered, the air grows thick with accusations and intrigue -- but each character gets her own highlighted song.

The solution to the mystery is worthy of Christie, but it is the journey we savor -- and the company of these designing women -- in this deliciously sardonic romp.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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