Opening with pristine pink cursive overlaying shimmering diamonds and colorful flowers, François Ozon's cheerfully retro musical-comedy 8 Women casts off a whiff of femininity that's so strong, it's as if the whole print has been dipped in cheap perfume. To add to the exuberant mood, Ozon packs a snowbound country estate with three generations of beautiful French actresses, who decorate the lavish drawing room like Christmas ornaments. A sugar-rush for film buffs, who are invited to a game of count-the-references, 8 Women intoxicates and overwhelms at the same time, giving off so much pleasure in a small space that the effect can be suffocating. Most of these actresses have carried dozens of films on their own luminous stardom, so to put them all in the same room together is like installing a 10,000-watt light bulb. Decked out in full '50s Technicolor, the film marries an Agatha Christie murder mystery to Sirkian melodrama, vintage pop musical numbers, and Ozon's own mischievous wit, which sneaks a few dark twists into an otherwise bubbly affair. Much like Gosford Park, the whodunit begins when the rich patriarch is discovered with a knife in his back, and everyone in the house has at least one motive for killing him. Without the telltale tracks in the snow, the murder had to have been an inside job, leaving eight possible suspects to point fingers at each other, revealing a number of shocking family secrets along the way. Taking her rightful place as head of the household, the ageless Catherine Deneuve plays the victim's wife, whose marriage had crumbled to such a degree that she and her husband occupied separate bedrooms. With the phone lines cut and the car engine sabotaged, Deneuve throws around accusations with the others, including her feisty mother (Danielle Darrieux), her spinster sister (Isabelle Huppert), her Nancy Drew daughters (Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier), and the two chambermaids, one loyal (Firmine Richard) and the other vaguely sinister (Emmanuelle Béart). Fanny Ardant rounds out the cast as Deneuve's sister-in-law, who rushes to the estate after receiving an anonymous telephone call. Adapted from a stage play, the rapid-fire dialogue makes for a breathless night of dinner theater—Huppert, brittle as ever, is especially funny—but Ozon smartly breaks up the banter with delightful musical interludes for each of the actresses, who sing in their own voices. As an adoring tribute to women, the film recalls Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, but the emotions are a little chillier, primarily because Ozon's constant movie references frame everything in quotation marks. A note of genuine sadness sneaks through at the end, but for the most part, enjoying 8 Women involves coming to terms with its artificiality and learning to appreciate it from a distance. Behind all that thick glass, it's still a work of art.
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