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Female persuasion 

Agatha Christie meets Douglas Sirk in 8 Women

8 Women is a wicked send-up of the frothy, women-centered melodramas of the Technicolor age. Like an arsenic-laced bonbon, it's sweet on the outside until you bite into its poison center.

French director Francois Ozon nails the perverse combination of Hollywood glitz and genuine grief that characterized films by masters of the mid-century melodrama. Ozon adds his own scabrous wit to that frilly mix, fashioning a self-referential confection out of the kind of retro melodramas that suggested a killer wardrobe was not incompatible with storylines centered on miscegenation and murder.

8 Women is cast with an elite sorority of French actresses including Fanny Ardant, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart. These actresses, who seem to relish the chance to play outside the box of refined period pieces and psychological dramas, perform like drag queens milking high camp out of their own images. Virginie Ledoyen as the wide-eyed virgin, Deneuve as the upper-crust ice queen, Huppert as the sexually repressed spinster send up melodramatic archetypes of the slut, the virgin, the shrew. But Ozon factors in another element of sly, intelligent critique by showing how these top actresses have also created their own screen archetypes.

The film's claustrophobic action unfolds at Christmastime in the lavish country home of the sole man in this fantastically colored confection, the put-upon Maurice. Maurice lives surrounded by an estrogen-juiced hive of women: daughters, wife, mother-in-law, sister, sister-in-law and housekeepers whose perfect coiffures and perfumed necks hide the steely-nerve and cunning of warriors. Soon after the film's opening, Maurice is found with a butcher knife buried in his back and the assembled amateur sleuths take turns trying to decide who among them is the killer.

All the sleuthing and revealed secrets are interrupted at hilariously odd junctures by one of the women breaking into song. Ozon's musical numbers, drawn from French pop from the '50s through the '80s, are as minimalist and campy as the rest of the film. The combination of heartfelt emotion and song brings to mind The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in yet another of Ozon's insider film references.

Ozon's melodrama comes to us, like so many postmodern phenomena, as an homage stacked on top of an homage. The work is based on the particularly skillful, compassionate and deliriously stylized melodramas made by the German-emigre Douglas Sirk, who greatly influenced the radical meta-melodramas in the '50s. Ozon injects a very contemporary sense of irony and love/disdain for the melodramatic form into 8 Women, which flits between celebration of the films of the past and a detached amusement at their absurdities, rolling his eyes with a Brechtian, drag-queen flourish along the lines of "can you believe this shit?"

Some of the actresses are more able than others to truly tame the ludicrous dimensions of this neo-musical melodrama, but Isabelle Huppert is a standout. Hilarious as Gaby's frumpy, repressed sister Augustine, Huppert offers a delicious parody of the many sexually frustrated, chilly women she has played on screen (most recently in The Piano Teacher) as well as the spinsters-turned-bombshells who populate classic melodramas like Now, Voyager.

Ozon's kitschy color scheme of pinks and reds combined with fierce women dressed to the nines instantly recalls Pedro Almodovar's own cinematic fondness for mad, tough women embroiled in absurd escapades. But Almodovar's madcap portraits are always loving, while there is a hint of disdain in Ozon's view of these women as gargoyle caricatures who devour the only man in sight tout de suite. The greatest flaw in a film that professes only to have merry fun is the unshakeable impression, that -- as gorgeous as they are -- Ozon doesn't particularly like women, or at least these viperish characters he has created.

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