Color, 2002, 113m. / Directed by François Ozon / Starring Catherine Deneueve, Fanny Ardant / Universal (US R1 NTSC) / DD5.1, Paramount (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) / DTS/DD5.1

A mind-boggling array of French actresses populates 8 Women (8 femmes), a stylized combination of murder mystery, pop musical, and drawing room comedy adapted from a play by thriller writer Robert Thomas (Trap for a Lonely Man). Continuing his apparent pursuit to explore every film genre imaginable, director François Ozon perfectly captures the look of a '50s Technicolor opus from Hollywood while instilling the film with a cockeyed sense of class and humor that's unmistakably continental.

One snowy morning, young Suzon (La cérémonie's Virginie Ledoyen) returns to her isolated family estate for Christmas to join her mother Gaby (Catherine Deneueve), her aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), little sister Catherine (Water Drops on Burning Rocks' Ludivine Sagnier, almost unrecognizable), and her father, who is inconveniently discovered murdered in his bed. With the phone lines cut and the car unable to start, the women find themselves trapped in the house and playing detective. Others in attendance include the wheelchair-bound grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), two secretive maids (Emmanuelle Béart and Firmine Richard), and arriving suspiciously late on the scene, the deceased's black sheep sister, the free-spirited and sultry Pierrette (Fanny Ardant). While not busy puzzling over the crime, each woman pauses for her own musical reverie to express herself, but that's not enough to prevent a string of catfights, lesbian clinches, and dramatic revelations which culminate in a final, tragic twist ending.

8 Women will be of great amusement to fans of French cinema who rarely get the opportunity to see these legends assembled in the same room, doing what they do best. Huppert has the juiciest role as the repressed, tweed-clothed spinster, who naturally undergoes a crowd-pleasing transformation in the third act. Fortunately each performer gets the spotlight at least once, with the always beguiling Béart performing a saucy rendition of the '80s pop standard, "Pile ou face (Heads or Tails)." In fact, each song originated as a famililar ballad or pop song from the '60s or '70s, which makes this something of a stylistic cousin to Moulin Rouge (and in visual terms, Far from Heaven).

Exploding with color from the (literally) flowery opening credits, this is a rich visual experience which surprisingly loses little in the transition to DVD. In fact, the anamorphic transfer looks even more vivid than the theatrical prints (saddled in the U.S. with an inexplicable R rating) and stands up to the best of Warner's MGM musical restorations. Every shot in the film is designed with immaculate care (think The Umbrellas of Cherbourg married to All that Heaven Allows), and the aesthetic scheme often threatens to completely obliterate the plot chugging along in the background. The 5.1 audio isn't as showy, mostly channeling the music to the front speakers with mild bleed-through to the rears. While the American disc from Universal looks top notch and affords the only opportunity to watch the film on DVD with English subtitles, it's depressingly devoid of extras aside from a servicable American trailer. It's a pedestrian package considering the high retail price, and even worse, the large yellow subtitles are burned in; if you want to watch the musical numbers without subs or have a 4:3 set and wish the subtitles were in the lower letterbox band, well, you're out of luck.

In France the film exists in no less than two DVD editions, a double-disc set and a four-disc set. Disc one includes the movie itself (in DTS or 5.1), along with an audio commentary (in French only) with Ozon, Ardant, Sagnier, script supervisor Agathe Grau, and producer Dominique Besnehard. On the second disc, the centerpiece is a one hour documentary which begins with the elaborate set construction and goes through the filming process. Even for those who can't speak a syllable of French, the docu offers some nice moments of levity including Ozon's deer wrangling during the opening shot, Deneuve and Ardant passively puffing on ciggies while watching the stunt doubles for their big catfight, and other sundry behind the scenes bonbons. Also included are eight video interviews with the actresses, screen tests (which play more like fashion demos), a deleted opening scene with the two maids discussing the members of the household, footage from the film's premiere, a press conference with the cast and director at the Berlin International Film Festival, a lengthy promo reel designed for international saleas, an elegant teaser (scored with John Zorn music!), a delicious gallery of poster art, and two music videos, Deneuve's "Toi Jamais" and Sagnier's "Papa, t'es plus dans le coup." Perhaps best of all is a riotous outtake reel, which finds the actresses repeatedly flubbing their musical numbers. It's strange and somehow reassuring to see such class acts as Deneuve and Huppert tripping over their lines while remaining thoroughly poised.

So, that's it for the two-disc set. In the quadruple platter edition (housed in a fuzzy pink and red slipcase, of course), the third disc kicks off with a 130-minute version of the original play recorded onstage and broadcast on French television in 1972. The program's vintage results in a bland and often smeary appearance, but it's interesting to compare the original (non-musical) work to the Ozonified film, which added all of the kittenish (bi)sexuality and camp elements. For French pop nuts there's a terrific selection of six of the song's earlier versions, mostly lifted from French TV programs. For the record, the songs are Françoise Hardy's "Message Personnel," an amazingly kitschy disco version of "A quoi sert de vivre libre" by Nicoletta, Dalida's "Pour ne pas vivre seul," Jane Mason's "Toi Jamais" (excerpted from a film), Georges Brassens' "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux" (which incidentally was later covered by Hardy, twice!), and the most memorable of the batch, a rousing version of "Pile ou face" by Corinne Charby. The disc is rounded off with a French TV interview with Deneueve, Ardant, and Ozon for a local news program. The fourth disc is the soundtrack CD, which contains all of the songs along with Krishna Lévy's appropriately lush music score.

Color, 1999, 80 mins. / Directed by François Ozon / Starring Bernard Giraudau, Malik Zidi, Ludivine Sagnier, Anna Thomson / Zeitgeist (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1), Paramount (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9) / DD 2.0

Apart from being gay and unbelievably prolific, directors François Ozon and the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder wouldn't seem to have much in common. Nevertheless the meeting of these two devious minds can be witnessed in the exquisitely cruel Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes), based on an early, unproduced Fassbinder play. Impeccably cast and shot, Water Drops manages to overcome the stagy, prosaic nature of its source and displays the strength of both men who dramatically represent European art cinema at its most potent.

The four act story begins when Leopold (former heartthrob Bernard Giraudau), a fifty year old insurance salesman, brings home twenty year old Franz (Malik Zidi) to his swinging '70s Berlin apartment. Though Franz plans to marry Anna (Ludvine Sagnier), Leo quickly wins him over and turns him into his willing houseboy. Six months later the two have become a bickering couple, unable to separate sexual desire from the misery they thoughtlessly inflict on each other. When Leo goes out of town for business, Anna stops by to visit and tries to lure Franz back to her side. The situation becomes even more complicated when Leo returns early, just in time for the unexpected arrival of his ex-girlfriend, Vera (Anna Thomson), who has a few surprises of her own.

With its smooth editing and quirky sense of humor, Water Drops somehow never becomes depressing or overdone. The kitschy wallpaper, shag carpeting, and clothing somehow work perfectly in context with the film, though the undeniable centerpiece is the foursome's rousing dance routine to Tony Holiday's campy "Tanze Samba mit mir" (used in its entirety for the U.S. trailer). The tone of the film is far more Ozon than Fassbinder; the dark, glossy Ballhaus visuals which made that German enfant terrible's descents into misery so striking have been replaced by Ozon's austere, brightly lit, ironic compositions, more attuned to the wry but penetrating tactics of Ozon's earlier Sitcom. Critics have often made note of Ozon's penchant for shock value, though this "failing" actually seems less characterstic the more one sees of his work. Very little of the "edgy" material in Water Drops, from its perverse plot twists to its oddly voluptuous female nudity, will seem especially novel to anyone familiar with '70s art cinema; instead Ozon appropriates the titillating elements to enhance his more serious study of human nature at its basest, where even the most sincere love can transform people into monsters.

Due to its recent vintage and wide palette of candy colors, Water Drops looks very good as expected on DVD. The mild letterboxing looks about right, though the non-removable (but large and always legible) English subtitles may be an annoyance to French-speaking viewers. Since it actually clocks in almost five minutes short of the original 85 minute running time (at least according to all of the film's international press info), this may have originated from a PAL source which would run slightly faster in NTSC (though the time drop still seems steep). Though the film sports a Dolby Digital/DTS credit, the disc is in standard surround and sounds just fine given the dialogue-driven nature of the film. Music receives some ambient support from the front speakers, and the showstopper dance routine has enough oomph to rattle the floors.

Extras on the disc include the aforementioned U.S. trailer, the French trailer (which contains some spoilers but thankfully has no subs), bios and filmographies for Ozon and Fassbinder, a fun sing-along subtitle option for "Tanze Samba" in English or German, and an English translation for the German poem Franz recites twice in the film to poignant effect.

Color, 1999, 91 mins. / Directed by François Ozon / Starring Natacha Régnier, Jérémie Rénier / Strand (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1), Paramount (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

Psychosexual undercurrents in fairy tales have been dissected by artists and critics for years, so it's no small compliment to say thatCriminal Lovers manages to find a novel spin on such a shopwornconcept. Serenely and ironically detached but passionate and horrifying in equal measure, this second feature length effort from Ozon continued to boost his reputation as one of France's most promising and gifted directors, a stance he has since proven in his future works.

Sexual tease and latent sadist Alice (Natacha Régnier) enjoys a close but nonsexual relationship with Luc (Jérémie Rénier), her complaintclassmate who allows her to manipulate his emotions thanks to his unfulfilled capacity for desire. Alice talks him into murdering a fellow student, Saïd (Salim Kechiouche), who may or may not have raped and humiliated Alice earlier at school. The brutal stabbing leaves aninconvenient body which the teens cart off into the woods, where they immediately lose their way after a speedy burial. Their criminal activity has been monitored by a sinister woodsman (Miki Manojlovic) who traps them in his cabin when they sneak in to pilfer some food. Alice remains locked down in a rat-infested basement, while Luc is occasionally brought up for meal time conversation and bathingprivileges. The woodsman professes to be an ogre who feeds on plumplittle boys and lean little girls, but his designs ultimately prove tobe far more complicated. Meanwhile through flashbacks the twisted storyof Alice, Luc, and their victim unravels through a series of poetic diary entries and disturbing revelations, culminating in a surreal finale which transforms them all.

Spinning off from the idea of two young people on a crime spree,Criminal Lovers is surprising and engaging enough to support Ozon's often wild flights of fancy, most of which are designed to shockor amuse... or, most likely, both. His previous film, Sitcom,traded on the domestic perversions pioneered by John Waters, but here the formula is something more novel and striking. The forest setting contrasts effectively with the stylized flashbacks, and even a simpleshoplifting jaunt through a department store becomes a dreamy tangent thanks to the elegant camerawork and crafty, restrained use of music.Though the characters remain ciphers at heart, Régnier takes top actinghonors for her seductive turn as Alice, a complex performance whichturns a potentially facile and hateful character into a troubled, fascinating girl whose sexual desires trigger a wholly irrational and dangerous penchant for murder. Film buffs will also have fun spottingreferences to other similarly themed films, the most obvious being Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (which is quoted almost verbatim twice during the last five minutes), though the film manages to retain its own identity and agenda throughout without resorting to overdone winking at the audience. Well, except for maybe the forest animals near the end...

The striking visuals of Criminal Lovers are captured well enoughby Strand's passable if somewhat lazy DVD, which features no relevant extras (apart from a few other alternative themed trailers). Thenon-anamorphic transfer and non-removeable subtitles will probably irk those used to the Criterion treatment, with good reason, but the video quality is extremely sharp and colorful. The English subtitles are large enough and easy to read, while the surround sountrack burst tomulti-channeled life on those few occasions when the film calls for it.For some reason the opening shot displays some jarring compression flaws in the wallpaper behind Luc, but mercifully the rest of the disc looks just fine and displays no other significant cause for complaint.

Color, 1994-98, 61 mins. / Directed by François Ozon / Starring Bruno Slagmulder, Sebastien Charles, Margot Abascal, François Delaive, Jacques Martial, Camille Japy

Format: DVD - Kim Stim (MSRP $24.95)/ Letterboxed (1.66:1) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono/Stereo

One of the most consistently inventive and interesting directors of the "new" French cinema, François Ozon first made a name for himself with a series of shocking, unpredictable short films before embarking on a feature film career with 1998's Sitcom, a devilish mixture of grotesque horror, social satire, and John Waters style shock humor. Working at a furious pace, he has since churned out Criminal Lovers (a macabre, sexualized updating of Hansel and Gretel), Water Drops on Burning Rocks (an adaptation of a Fassbinder play), Under the Sand (Charlotte Rampling's 2001 comeback vehicle), and the upcoming 8 Women. For those curious to see where it all started, this collection of four short films offers a good introduction to his work, though the easily offended should approach with caution.

The earliest film, 1994's "Action Vérité (Truth or Dare)," is a funny, jolting five minute piece in which four teenagers (two boys, two girls) sit on the floor and play the title game, culminating in an unforgettable punchline. "La Petite Morte (The Little Death)" (1995), the strongest narrative piece, concerns a young man named Paul (François Delaive) who resents his father and passes the time with his lover (Jaques Martial) by collecting pictures of people at the height of orgasm. His sister Camille (Camille Japy) arrives to tell Paul to tell him that their father has died; how he responds and his subsequent discoveries form the crux of the plot, with more than a few twists along the way.

Exactly what its name implies, "Scènes de Lit (Bed Scenes)" (1997) presents seven couples of various configurations engaging in a variety of pillow talk, ranging from the erotic to the blatantly absurd, with each separated by a new title and cast list. Finally, the enigmatic "X2000" (1998) follows a hungover man (Bruno Slagmulder) awakening on New Year's Day, 2000, observing a pair of couples both during and following coitus, and pondering the existence of ants which swarm beneath his trash can and onto his foot. Though crammed with nudity, the eight minute short is fairly anti-erotic in nature, feeling more like a hazy late morning daydream than a real film.

Despite the short running times, these films offer a decent approximation of Ozon's skewed sense of humor and his ability to approach potentially repulsive subject matter with an odd impartiality. Though his visuals are rarely deliberately flashy, he exhibits a keen photographic eye and an ability to use editing and cinematic rhythm to create his own distinct voice as a director. Love him or hate him, there's thankfully no one else around quite like him. Another good collection of his films, See the Sea (containing the title film and "My Summer Dress"), is available from New Yorker, who should really get around to releasing it on DVD along with Sitcom one of these days.

The video quality on Kim Stim's DVD varies wildly depending on the source material. "X2000," the most recent of the bunch, looks quite fine and sharply transferred, but otherwise this is a mostly mixed bag in which the dullness of 16mm black definition results in some noticeable compression problems. Considering the brief running time of the entire program, the bit rate could have been much higher. However, if you can find it at a discount lower than the somewhat steep pricetag, this is a worth picking up (or at least renting) for a truly unique viewing experience from a talent well worth watching.

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