While French title Les Femmes de l'Ombre may aspire to Jean-Pierre Melville, the English translation Female Agents is closer to the mark, though this surprisingly well reviewed but increasingly hokey story of a quintet of French SOE agents in occupied France might have been more accurately called Ou Babes Audace. Its group of poorly defined stereotypes led by Sophie Marceau at her most coldly unlikeable are sent to rescue a British geologist on whom the success of D-Day depends from a German army hospital in Normandy, which they manage with unlikely ease with a couple of nurses outfits, a striptease show and a lot of unlikely machinegun fire and explosions, but it turns out the gals have been misled by Marceau's estranged brother and superior in the SOE Julien Boisselier. They're also expected to assassinate a German SS officer with a severe case of vertigo (the Hitchcock kind - he's searching for a double of the French girl who jilted him at the altar and ran off to England), and wouldn't you know it, team member Marie Gillain isn't just a dead ringer for her, she actually is his ex. From then on, what had been a fairly handsomely mounted, efficient but not terribly exciting potboiler becomes an increasingly absurd mess of increasingly moronic and unconvincing contrivance and coincidence-prone hokum that loses most of its relation to reality and sheds IQ points by the reel. Naturally, the girls keep on fudging their mission for no other reason than to kill off another member of the team until it has become so nonsensical that it's threatening to outstay what little welcome it has left.
There's not much room for characterisation until the last third, which is leaving it a bit late for us to care about anyone. Moreau is at her most determinedly disagreeable, something the script does at least briefly try to address by having one character note that "Pity isn't your strong point. Try to be a little bit human for once." Unfortunately when she does it simply shows up her limitations, putting you in mind more of Frasier Crane's ex-wife Lilith than the likes of Odette Sanson or Violette Szabo, though she has more to work with than the clichéd dilemmas facing the other characters. Will the one-time collaborator sleep with her ex or kill him? Will cynical death row whore Julie Depardieu discover idealism? Will the nice Catholic girl Deborah Francois commit suicide to avoid torture? Will a CGi-resurrected Anton Diffring and Ferdy Mayne turn up for old clichés sake? These people simply act like they're in an old war movie rather than real people, going through scenes designed as would-be movie setpieces rather than convincing or involving drama. Small wonder that Moritz Bleibtrau's German villain is the closest the film has to a convincing character: he at least behaves as if he belongs in the time and place more often than not.
There's some cynicism thrown in along the way to try to make it all seem less clichéd - it's the De Gaullist in the group who cracks instantly under the threat of torture and betrays them while a black marketeer is neatly derided: "Start with the Germans, end the war with the Brits. How French can you get?" But at times it feels more cynical itself, with just enough tits and Tommy guns to help sell a few more tickets - director Jean-Paul Salomé even makes sure that one girl is given a gratuitous full frontal nude suicide scene. When a final caption informing us that 'this film is dedicated to the women who fought against Nazi barbarity' comes up you almost expect the words 'and got their tits out doing it' to appear. Not too many pluses - the action scenes aren't very convincing, though a scene on the Metro almost works despite its unlikeliness - but at least Maya Sansa makes an impression in the film's most underwritten role. The 2-disc DVD (but not this single-disc version) included Deborah Francois' semi-improvised audition scene that hints at a more interesting film that could have been made if ever-underachieving co-writer-director Salomé had been more interested in exploring the characters, but the film he ended up making is at best overlong hokum.