Dir: Francois Ozon. France. 2002. 103mins.

Clearly not one to be stuffed into a stylistic straitjacket, the erratic, highly talented Francois Ozon has flamboyant fun with Eight Women (Huit Femmes), an old-fashioned Agatha Christie-ish whodunnit made over as high camp with songs and an all-female cast. Although it will no doubt be dismissed as vacuous by those looking for the serious content of his sombrely haunting Under The Sand (Sous Le Sable), his previous film and an international success, this is a movieland souffle served up with wit and verve by all concerned. At 34, Ozon now has sufficient standing in the industry to command one of the most glamorous Gallic casts in years, with the likes of Mesdames Deneuve, Huppert, Beart, Ardant, Ledoyen and Darrieux acting under the same roof. With a 400-plus print release in France this week, and the additional prestige of being in competition at the Berlinale, the project is definitely poised to be a high-profile French film on the international scene. It is also set to roll out in 43 territories and is being groomed as a big commercial follow-up to Amelie in the US, where it has been bought for $1m by USA Films.

Eight Women should draw some superficial comparisons with Robert Altman's Gosford Park, another multi-character, upstairs/downstairs country- house murder mystery. But, unlike Altman, Ozon eliminates the realistic social background, deliberately opting for artifice, theatricality and eight actresses who are ready to let their hair down and poke fun at their screen images. Ever the provocateur and genre-subversive (as demonstrated in his first feature, Sitcom, to which this film is a sort of pendant), Ozon fell back on a forgotten 1960s Gallic stage property after failing to secure remake rights to The Women, George Cukor's classic MGM comedy. Making do with more conventional material, Ozon and his collaborator Marina de Van have taken apart and rebuilt Robert Thomas's play as a garish movieland bonbonniere of female desire and turpitude.

The creaky 1950s-set plot, trimmed and re-arranged by Ozon's script, centres on the murder of a patriarch (glimpsed from behind in several brief flashbacks) in a snow-bound middle-class country house where the family is gathering for Christmas. The all-distaff suspects include the victim's starchy bourgeois wife (Deneuve) and two children (Ledoyen and Sagnier), his sexually rapacious sister (Ardant), his stuck-up spinster sister (Huppert) and his wheelchair-bound mother-in-law (Darrieux), not to mention the black governess (Richard) and new chambermaid (Beart).

With no conventional or bumbling detective to unravel the mystery, it is up to the ladies of the house to find the murderer in their midst as they engage in bitching, catfighting and recriminations, lashing out at one another as they unload their psycho-sexual baggage in the process. This leads to some outlandish scenes in what we can now call the Ozon manner, including a curiously unerotic clinch on the carpet between the stuffy Deneuve and the slinky Ardant. Everyone has her perverse secret uncovered by the time the surprise climax is rolled out.

But where Ozon - and the audience - has the most fun is with the musical comedy graft he performs on this hoary material. Each of the players has her own confessional number to perform without vocal stand-ins.

Musically, Ozon bookmarks the film with songs from the youngest and eldest member of the cast: Sagnier (seen in Ozon's 1999 Fassbinder adaptation, Water Drops On Burning Rocks) delivers a rousing poisoned Valentine to daddy with Deneuve and Huppert as chorines; while Darrieux, who has sung often and wonderfully in a film career that began in 1931, provides the mournful final ballad that is meant to give the action its moral fillip.

The whole cast has a field day with roles that they are asked to take beyond stereotype. Special mention must go to Huppert's neurotic old maid, who provides many of the broad comic highlights, and Beart's insolent chambermaid, who smoulders with repressed desire before letting it all hang out in one of the most effectively staged musical numbers.

The single setting of a cosy snow-bound bourgeois country house (with scenes set in various rooms) is rendered in warm theatrical hues by production designer Arnaud de Moleron and lovingly captures in Jeanne Lapoirie's camerawork. But it is Pascaline Chavanne's flamboyant costumes that give the action its lush visual patina, inspired by Hollywood movies of the 1950s and the extravagant Technicolor flair of such directors as Douglas Sirk, one of the film's obvious movieland references.

Prod cos: Fidelite Productions, France 2 Cinemas, Mars Films
Fr dist: Mars Films
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Exec prods: Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier
Scr: Ozon, with the collaboration of Marina de Van, from the play by Robert Thomas
Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Prod des: Arnaud de Moleron
Costumes: Pascaline Chavanne
Ed: Laurence Bawedin
Music: Krishna Levy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier, Firmine Richard