8 WOMEN ****

CAST: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier, Firmine Richard

DIRECTOR: Francois Ozon

There's a man in an upstairs bedroom with a knife in his back. Downstairs in the remote French manor, there are eight women crashing about, sobbing, screaming, whispering, scheming, stealing, lying, wrestling one another to the floor, and--when they happen to remember there's a stiff upstairs--making noisy accusations of murder. They would call on the gendarmes for help, but they're snowed in and the phone wires have been cut. And there is a distinct possibility the killer will strike again.

Sounds like an intricately plotted tingler in the Agatha Christie tradition, doesn't it? Well, it's not. Nobody in Francois Ozon's gloriously artificial screwball melodrama seems truly frightened or terribly eager to unravel the mystery of who bumped off the man of the house. Not his two-timing wife (Catherine Deneuve), his intoxicating maid-cum-mistress (Emmanuelle Beart), his intoxicated mother-in-law (Danielle Darrieux), his voraciously sexual sister (Fanny Ardant), his bitter, virginal sister-in-law (Isabelle Huppert), his furtive housekeeper ( Firmine Richard), or his daughters (Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier), one of whom is a hot number who seems to have been far more than a daughter to her father.

Sometimes the festering rage or greed or malice or lust becomes too powerful to be expressed in mere words. That's when the women, singly or in tandem, burst into song and dance numbers--some on the lavish side, some suggesting to us what vaudeville must have been like. Each player has the chance to take center stage, and each does so with gusto and guts.

How are we to respond to such obsessive oddity and disdain for orderly narration? With enormous gratitude, I would say. There hasn't been anything this audacious, funny and uncategorizable in ages. It's sort of like a "Dancer in the Dark" with grace and intentional humor. Writer-director Francois Ozon marvels at the beauty, fragility, vanity and fortitude of his multi-generational cast (and, by extension, all French actresses). And so he presented them with this valentine.