Agatha Christie meets the Shock the Bourgeoisie Handbook with suspenseful and funny results in Francois Ozon’s “8 Women,” in which an octet of fetchingly garbed and lovingly lensed femmes ends up stranded in a country house with a dead body and side orders of rancor, passion and suspicion. In abrupt contrast to his deadly serious and beautifully modulated drama “Under the Sand,” this is a campy sendup of vintage Hollywood artifice with all the ingredients to woo general auds at home and arthouse auds offshore. A bitch-fest with great costumes — Clare Boothe Luce and Anita Loos would recognize these broads, but wouldn’t want to be in the same room with them — venture should lend itself to sly and classy marketing campaigns wherever it’s shown. Pic is competing in Berlin, and USA Films plans an autumn release in the U.S.
After a series of sometimes funny, sometimes horrifically creepy shorts, Ozon’s first feature, 1998’s “Sitcom,” was too busy electrocuting established pieties to truly hang together. But, in his fifth feature in as many years (including “Criminal Lovers,” “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” and “Under the Sand”), all the elements coalesce. In complete command of the conventions he’s mocking, Ozon has grafted all the delectably perverse family secrets he can think of onto the basic armature of a play (by Robert Thomas) written in the ’60s and set in the ’50s.
Ozon’s notion of derision is perfectly carried out by his multi-generational name cast. The women look great, but act ugly; the musical numbers both stop the show and move the story forward; and there’s melodrama to spare, with an undercurrent of humor that bursts through like glimpses of a push-up bra beneath a nun’s habit. Think Douglas Sirk meets John Waters, in France.
At first embracing the inherent stiffness of a filmed play, pic quickly establishes its gallery of players, each as distinct as the characters in a game of Clue.
In the company of her eldest daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), Gaby (Catherine Deneuve) pulls up to the remote estate where she lives with her husband, Marcel, and their 16-year-old daughter, Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier). Suzon is home for Christmas; Catherine gobbles up detective novels and crime thrillers. Their faithful housemaid, Mme. Chanel (Firmine Richard), lives on the grounds, as does more recent hire Louise (Emmanuelle Beart), a pouty chambermaid with an insolent streak and a broad definition of “service.”Gaby and Marcel haven’t shared a bed for some time. Marcel’s business interests have done badly of late, but he continues to support his wife’s haughty ugly duckling of a spinster sister, Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), and wheelchair-bound mother, Mamy (Danielle Darrieux).
When Louise takes a breakfast tray up to Marcel, she discovers him murdered. Someone has cut the phone wires, the only car won’t start, snow is piling up and the main gate is locked, making it impossible to summon the police. The killer must be among them.
There are more motives than alibis, and the insinuations are so thick you could cut them with the knife in Marcel’s back when, 30 minutes in, Marcel’s estranged libertine sister, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), comes in from the snow.
While not consistently up to the standards Clare Boothe Luce set in her classic all-distaff play “The Women” (which George Cukor brought to the screen so memorably in 1939), there are plenty of zingers in the dialogue and multiple excuses for cat fights. One such tussle leads to a development that wouldn’t have made it past any censor on earth in the heyday of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Proceedings sport the deadpan expediency of a soap opera, and the prurient energy of a chicks-in-prison pic as seen through the pages of Vogue, circa 1950. Each character is assigned a musical monologue in the form of a pre-existing song, with thesps handling their own vocals.
Ozon essentially has one set to work with: an expansive main-floor living room, with a sweeping staircase, intelligently designed by Arnaud de Moleron. But he and d.p. Jeanne Lapoirie literally seem to know all the angles. Attention to color — in an obvious homage to Technicolor’s glory days — is spiffy.
For all its careful plotting, some viewers may find the exercise ultimately hollow and nasty, but thesps make the experience completely worthwhile. Every time it seems as if Huppert has reached the top of her game — “The Pianist” and best actress kudos at Cannes were the most recent gauge of her versatility — she manages to top herself. Her perf alone is worth the price of admission.
In an enterprise this claustrophobic and artificial, every detail counts. Pascaline Chavanne’s costumes are a delight, hair styling is fab, Sebastien Charles’ rudimentary choreography is subdued but effective, and Krishna Levy’s score is lushly retro in all the right ways.