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Sour '8 Women' Needs a Dash of Douglas Sirk


For "8 Women," the young director Francois Ozon has congregated some of the greatest actresses in French cinema--but having gotten his women, like too many men, he doesn't know what to do with them.

A summit of icons and heartbreaking beauty, the cast of "8 Women" includes Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart and Virginie Ledoyen, who have worked with some of their country's finest directors in some of their most memorable films. (In a particularly French twist, Deneuve and Ardant were involved with one of those directors, Francois Truffaut, whose romantic tragedy "The Woman Next Door" was inspired by his affair with Deneuve and made the then-unknown Ardant a star.)

The excuse for this confabulation of chic is a genre pastiche that looks something like Douglas Sirk and plays out a bit like Agatha Christie. It's the late 1950s, and eight women are stranded in an isolated country manor with the body of a dead man. Deneuve is the man's wife, Gaby, while Huppert plays Gaby's sister, Augustine, and Darrieux, the pair's alcoholic nag of a mother, Mamy. The story takes off soon after Gaby's daughter Suzon (Ledoyen) returns home from college for Christmas break, and the tarty chambermaid, Louise (Beart), discovers the body. (Also in residence are Gaby's youngest daughter, Catherine, played by Ludivine Sagnier, and the housekeeper Madame Chanel, played by Firmine Richard.)

A raging torrent of insults, accusations and confessions follows the discovery, and, as in any number of Agatha Christie mysteries, it isn't long before each of the eight women has become at once an accuser and the accused. It's the old war of all against all--though here the combatants are dressed in couture and periodically break into song and dance--and for the first hour or so, it isn't bad. The women swirl about in a blur of bright color and giddy emotion like drunk butterflies, and every so often Deneuve, Huppert or Ardant steps forward to remind you that there are some grown-ups on the set.

As the dead man's sister, Ardant pays red-hot homage to Rita Hayworth. Huppert, in turn, plays the neurotic Augustine to the edge of self-parody with a lot of eyeball popping and teeth gnashing, while Deneuve moves through the scenery with her glacial hauteur, an iceberg into which the rest of the women continually crash. Ozon has said that he wanted to shoot a new version of Clare Boothe Luce's viperous comic play "The Women," had been softened up for the screen by director George Cukor in his 1939 adaptation. When Ozon discovered that the remake rights to the Luce drama weren't available, he turned to an obscure French play called "8 Women," written by the late Robert Thomas; he and Marina De Van then shaped it into a screenplay. Thomas' play--or at least what Ozon has fashioned from it--doesn't offer much improvement on Luce's splenetic view toward her gender. Although it starts off vaguely amusing, "8 Women" grows progressively sour, curdled by the filmmakers' bad faith and lack of compassion. It isn't just the tone that's off; it's the point. Pastiche is always difficult to pull off, but it's close to impossible when you don't have a feel for the original material. During the late 1950s, Sirk made a series of lush Hollywood melodramas about pampered, privileged women who endure crucibles of suffering in homes that resemble mausoleums. The women shed glycerin tears while wearing mink stoles. But although their lives were patently (and purposely) absurd, the characters themselves never were.

Yet if Ozon has picked up on the excesses of Sirk's style, he has mistaken the Hollywood auteur's ironic detachment for wholesale cynicism. Beneath their crinoline and endless chattering, Ozon's women hide a world of misery (one is even carrying an illicit child); they're victims as well as perpetrators of their ridiculous circumstances. If the director doesn't notice any of this, it may be because he seems more interested in making sport of his actresses and, just possibly, the directors with whom their legends were made. It may be a stretch, but it's hard not to think that when Ozon puts Deneuve and Ardant in the same film simply to throw them into a catfight that the real object of his rancor may be Truffaut.

MPAA rating: R, for some sexual content. Times guidelines: adult language and themes, with one fully clothed lesbian encounter.

"8 Women"

Danielle Darrieux...Mamy

Catherine Deneuve...Gaby

Isabelle Huppert...Augustine

Virginie Ledoyen...Suzon

Ludivine Sagnier...Catherine

Fanny Ardant...Pierrette

Emmanuelle Beart...Louise

Firmine Richard...Madame Chanel

A Fidelite Productions, France 2 Cinema and Mars Films production, released by Focus Features. Director and screenwriter Francois Ozon. Screenplay collaborator Marina De Van. Based on the play by Robert Thomas. Producers Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier. Director of photography Jeanne Lapoirie. Set design Arnaud de Moleron. Costumes Pascaline Chavanne. Choreography Sebastien Charles. Editor Laurence Bawedin. Original music Krishna Levy. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

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