8 Women (Focus Features, rated R)

8 Women provides some big laughs and a plentiful supply of smaller ones.

Women is a murder mystery and musical comedy rolled into one. The film takes place in the late 1950s in a country manor in France, where a group of women is preparing for the Christmas holidays. But their plans are disrupted when they discover the family patriarch, Marcel, facedown in bed with a knife in his back. It can only be murder most French. Unable to summon the police, the snowbound women decide to conduct their own investigation— and a zany one it is. Venez, the game is afoot! After hastily deducing that the culprit must be one of them, they attempt to expose the perpetrator before she can strike again. But this posse of petty Poirots is more adept at innuendo than investigation, and the backstabbing soon gives way to backbiting. Amid betrayals and fleeting alliances, the women delve into each other’s darkest, most intimate secrets, unveiling mysteries even more tantalizing than the untimely demise of their host.

This film was a big box-office hit in France and won the Silver Bear Award at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival for its ensemble cast, starring some of France’s best known actresses. Heading the all-star lineup is Catherine Deneuve (Indochine, The Last Metro) who is simply wonderful as Marcel’s bourgeois wife, Gaby. Isabelle Huppert (Malina, Heaven’s Gate) is especially good as Gaby’s spinster sister, Augustine, and Danielle Darrieux (Bad Seed, Five Fingers) is perfect as her disingenuous mother, Mamy. But my personal favorite is Fanny Ardent (Sabrina, Family Business), who sparkles like a French Chardonnay as Marcel’ s sultry and seductive sister, Pierrette. These four actresses have well over 200 screen credits among them. All eight of the actresses work beautifully together on every level.

Interspersed throughout the film are musical vignettes where each actress does a song and dance routine intended to reveal her character’s innermost feelings and attitudes about life and love. Most of these are humorous, as well as entertaining, particularly those by Gaby, Pierrette, and the chambermaid, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart; A Heart in Winter, Manon of the Spring). But some are more serious, like “Pour ne pas vivre seule,” a poignant and touching piece about the lengths people go to not to live alone, sung by the housekeeper, Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard).

8 Women provides some big laughs and a plentiful supply of smaller ones. It also offers some tender moments that are quite nice. With its great cast, a funny, well-written screenplay (François Ozon and Marina De Van; adapted from the play by Robert Thomas), and strong direction (François Ozon), the film’s popularity and success are certainly no mystery.

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