Quick, silly and lent weight only by the costume department’s copious wigs and furs, “The Crime Is Mine” finds tireless French auteur François Ozon in the playful period pastiche mode of “Potiche” and “8 Women.” It’s a film less about any frenetic onscreen shenanigans as it is about its own mood board of sartorial and cinematic reference points — Jean Renoir, Billy Wilder, some vintage Chanel — and as such it slips down as fizzily and forgettably as a bottle of off-brand sparkling wine. This story of an aspiring stage star standing trial for a top impresario’s murder (and making the most of her moment in the tabloid flashbulbs) may be based on a nearly 90-year-old play, but for those versed more in Hollywood and Broadway than in French theater, Ozon’s adaptation resembles a kind of diva fanfic: What if Roxie Hart went up against Norma Desmond, except in rollicking 1930s Paris?
As it happens, Georges Berr and Louis Verneuil’s 1934 comedy “Mon crime” has twice been adapted into Hollywood screwball romps: 1937’s Carole Lombard vehicle “True Confession” and the lesser 1946 remake “Cross My Heart,” starring Betty Hutton. Returning to the milieu of its source, “The Crime Is Mine” nonetheless updates proceedings with a righteous dose of post-#MeToo gender politics: Whether its blonde-bombshell heroine is guilty of the crime or not is ultimately immaterial to a case that builds to an impassioned defense of a woman’s right to defend herself from unwanted patriarchal advances, by any means necessary. That her lawyer is a gal pal, rather than a male love interest as in previous iterations, ups the ante, though the relative earnestness of the film’s feminism stands in contrast to an otherwise wholly flippant exercise.
“Some women are born to love, others to listen,” sighs cash-strapped junior attorney Pauline (Rebecca Marder), with one of many lingering Sapphic gazes at her platinum-bobbed roommate Madeleine (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). Madeleine is firmly in the former camp, though her covert romance with spineless tire-factory heir André (a winsome Edouard Sulpice) is of less importance to her than her budding acting career. We first encounter her storming out of the sprawling Art Deco mansion of star-making theater producer Montferrand (Jean-Christophe Bouvet), with whom she had an auspicious afternoon appointment; when he’s found dead later that day, with a bullet in his skull, she’s the prime suspect.
When bumbling investigating judge Rabusset (a drolly pompous Fabrice Luchini) first interrogates her, Madeleine flatly denies any culpability. With Pauline’s counsel, however, she swiftly settles on another narrative, one that rests on Montferrand’s reputation for being more than a little handsy with his ingenues: She killed him in the face of an attempted rape. “Bit melodramatic,” mutters Rabusset after their explanation — dramatized in glamorously silvery black-and-white — as if the film’s entire construction hasn’t been gleefully heightened from the jump. His misgivings, however, aren’t shared by the jury, the public or the tabloid press, as Madeleine’s teary self-defense story, cannily coached by Pauline, captures the popular imagination and makes her an overnight celebrity.
Is it true? Who cares? Nobody, it seems, except faded silent-movie siren Odette Chaumette (Isabelle Huppert), who strides in past the one-hour mark with conflicting evidence and a welcome surge of vampish venom, just as Ozon’s energy is beginning to flag. Comeback-seeking Odette is after Madeleine’s spotlight, but Huppert herself hardly has to wrest it from the game, fluttery Tereszkiewicz: The camera all but genuflects the second the veteran makes her imperious entrance, crowned in feathers and a frizzy copper coiffure, and vocally asserting her right to its continued attention. Huppert has little to do but spit out pithy lines with her signature disdain, and cast the odd lascivious glance at a duly mesmerized Pauline — but it hardly takes a lot to stroll off with a film this light.
With its distinguished scenery-chewer finally present, then, it’s a pity that “The Crime Is Mine” oddly peters out in its final third — the script averting seemingly pre-ordained clashes in the name of female solidarity, but also pulling back from its queerest and most subversive possibilities. A witty script sidebar details how Madeleine’s case inspires other women to consider bumping off the men in their lives to improve their standing and peace of mind, though it never escalates to dizzier farcical heights, even as it gifts us the film’s best line: Asked by André why he was spared the bullet, Madeleine shrugs, “I can’t kill everyone.” There are passing pleasures, too, to be had in Manu Dacosse’s buttery lensing and the silky gloss of the production and costume design alike. Yet “The Crime Is Mine” never aspires to the exacting postmodern formal rigor of “8 Women”: An out-and-out divertissement, Ozon’s latest is at pains only to avoid trying too hard.