Like his colleague Pedro Almodovar, French director Francois Ozon is praised for his passion for women - for actresses, more specifically - as much as he is praised for the surreal, Day-Glo worlds he creates. Like much of Almodovar's work, Ozon's "8 Women" is an ebullient toast to grande dames: part homage, part camp, all artifice and a thoroughly entertaining, if light, confection.
Ozon, at 35 one of France's hottest young talents, excels at turning out quirky films that reference the cinema as much as any real emotion. "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," based on an early Rain er Werner Fassbinder play, was Ozon's claustrophobic, nouveau Fassbinder film. His "Criminal Lovers" played with fairy-tale motifs in a modern twist on "Hansel and Gretel."
In last year's "Under the Sand," Ozon delivered not conceit but a powerful emotional experience and gave Charlotte Rampling one of the best roles of her career, as a woman on the verge of a breakdown after her husband's disappearance.
Perhaps thanks to the exquisite acting he got from Rampling, Ozon was able to attract the cream of the French actress crop to "8 Women." Indeed, the playful, zesty performances from Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Danielle Darrieux and their young proteges are the best thing about the film. Ozon dolls up his actresses in lavish, color-coded costumes that match the sumptuous sets.
"8 Women" is part Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, part high-camp melodrama and part heartfelt musical, and Ozon allows each of the eight women her turn in a song and dance. Each of these revealing interludes also works as a tribute to '50s-style Hollywood musicals in the Vincente Minnelli mold, as well as a toast to Technicolor melodrama, Douglas Sirk style.
Ozon presents each number the old-fashioned way, without cutaways and, in most cases, accompanied by long takes of the star's full-length body - a shot that exposes as much as it worships.
In "Gosford Park" fashion, it turns out that everyone in this house of women has the motive and the means to murder the sole man, whom we never see. The secrets revealed as the masks come off, often replaced by other masks, run the gamut of cliches - alcoholism, incest, infidelity, financial ruin - and then some.
The cat fight that ends in a kiss between cool Deneuve and hot-blooded Ardant is gratuitous but fun, as if the sly Ozon could not resist such a moment between two legendary actresses famous for their films and their intimacy with Francois Truffaut. He also offers a winking but glorious moment when the photo that one character carries in a locket is actually that of the late Romy Schneider, international star of the '50s and '60s, who was known for her heat as much as Deneuve was known for her cool.
In moments like this, Ozon's clever but sincere ability to let his audience share in the sheer joy of the movies feels as generous as his idolization of the formidable women on the screen.
3 (out of 4)
Directed by Francois Ozon; written by Ozon and Marina De Van, based on a play by Robert Thomas; photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie; edited by Laurence Bawedin; production design by Arnaud de Moleron; music by Krishna Levy; produced by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. (In French; English subtitled.) Running time: 1:53. MPAA rating: R (some sexual content).
Gaby - Catherine Deneuve
Augustine - Isabelle Huppert
Louise - Emmanuelle Beart
Pierrette - Fanny Ardant
Mamy - Danielle Darrieux
Suzon - Virginie Ledoyen