The case of the singing murder suspects

"8 Women" delivers just what the title promises. François Ozon's new comedy-thriller-musical-romance boasts as glamorous a cast of fabulous French actresses as any stargazer could wish for.

The story takes place in the 1950s on a French country estate owned by an aging man who's been more successful at making money than winning true love.

Eight women who have played various roles in his life are there for the Christmas holidays, and just when the get- together is starting, a dismayed maid announces that their host has been murdered in his room.

The culprit couldn't have come from outside, since there are no telltale tracks in the deep snow that has been falling. This throws suspicion on the visitors themselves. Which one killed the wealthy codger? Each has a motive, and none is willing to confess. So they accuse, accost, confront, cajole, quarrel with, and comfort one another as the hours pass.

They also sing and dance, and that's one of the things that makes this offbeat movie very different from an Agatha Christie whodunit – and from Robert Altman's popular "Gosford Park," which it occasionally recalls.

Ozon likes to combine diverse elements into cinematic hybrids. Here he takes a classic mystery-movie format and embroiders it less with menace and suspense than with color, music, and whimsy.

And yes, those stars. Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux play the two matriarchs of the group. Also on hand are Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, and Virginie Ledoyen – plus Isabelle Huppert, so convincing as an uptight aunt that you may not recognize her until her straitlaced character eventually loosens up and lets her allure show a little.

Ozon enjoys paying tribute to other directors, and "8 Women" is his half-sincere, half-teasing homage to vintage thrillers, Hollywood musicals, and TV soap operas, which also seduce audiences with beautiful faces, eye-filling outfits, and plot twists where defying credibility is half the fun.

The secret to enjoying "8 Women" is to check your analytical mind at the popcorn counter and settle back for almost two hours of cinematic mischief.

The solution to the mystery may not surprise you – as Ozon surely knows – but there's great pleasure to be found in the triumphs, tragedies, and perky little numbers along the way.

• Rated R; contains sex.

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