A film by Louis Malle is generally an occasion for celebration. "May Fools" (at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar) is not exactly an exception, it's simply way down the list of that urbane director's best efforts. It's not, heaven help us, "Black Moon," or "Crackers," but it can't even rub shoulders with "Murmur of the Heart" or "Lacombe Lucien" or "Au Revoir Les Enfants."
Malle's best films cast a warm if ironic eye on the foibles of his fellow man. In "May Fools," co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere, the director seems remote, his characters thin to the point of caricature.
These comfortable landowners are walking the countryside of Jean Renoir, there is even a literal link to that director's films in the casting of 82-year-old Paulette Dubost as the matriarch of the family--she was the maid in Renoir's 1939 classic "Rules of the Game." And in a love of family and place, there is a suggestion of Tavernier's bucolic masterpiece, "A Sunday in the Country." Yet "May Fools" is not lyrical filmmaking, it's oddly abrupt and unsubtle, even with music by Stephane Grappelli to nudge and bridge his story along.
It's the May of the French student revolutions, 1968, as militant students supported by striking workers nationwide have brought France to a standstill, threatening to overturn De Gaulle's government with their demands for social reform. As one young man just back from Paris describes it, the fire of revolution in his voice, "People are holding hands, they're talking; they meet and make love right away."
The film takes place in the rich French wine country, where the Vieuzac family has had its rambling villa for generations. Paris seems remote. News of its street fighting comes in spurts from an unreliable radio or via equally unreliable rumors from the nearby village. In any case Milou (Michel Piccoli) who's managed the family vineyard for decades, has more urgent matters to consider; his mother (Dubost), matriarch of the family, has just died. Quickly summoned, the family members stream to the country for the funeral and, more importantly to each of them, the reading of Mme. Vieuzac's will.
Malle is a little cavalier about the relationships; halfway through the film, we may still be untangling them. In any case, Mme. Vieuzac's children include Piccoli's Milou, a widower who has lived on the estate most of his life; Camille (Miou-Miou), his materialistic married daughter, a summation of everything small-minded and mean about the bourgeoisie; Georges (Michel Duchaussoy), Milou's slightly younger brother, a correspondent for Le Monde who sprinkles his speech with little English expressions; Lily, (Harriet Walter) Georges' English actress-wife and Claire (Dominique Blanc), Mme. Vieuzac's orphaned granddaughter who arrives for the services with her fetching young lover, ballet student Marie-Laure (Rozenn Le Tallec).
Others include Adele (Martine Gautier), Mme. Vieuzac's devoted young housekeeper and, bearing bruises from Paris street fighting, Georges' son, Pierre-Alain (Renaud Danner), and the friendly macho trucker, Grimaldi (Bruno Carette), who although hardly a revolutionary himself, has picked up the young man and delivered him to his doorstep. So, amid meals of crayfish and wine, family reminiscences, tensions, bickering and flirtations, the formalities attending the end of a life unfold.
Best among the actors are Blanc, who looks as though she could play Edith Piaf, big-eyed and tormented; Miou-Miou, biting in her thankless role and Piccoli as the only family member to weep for his mother. He's also splendid in his exchanges with Camille's inquisitive pre-teen-age daughter Francoise (engagingly played by Miou-Miou's own daughter, Jeanne Herry-Leclerc), unfazed by her questions as to why Claire ties Marie-Laure to the bedpost at night, or what all this talk about "the pill" means.
The film's criss-crossing alliances are conventional; the tryst in the hayloft, the pinch in the hall, the slap-and-tickle in the wine cellar. (Its R rating is for brief nudity.) What Renoir investigates with rueful wisdom and what Chekhov--in the films of Nikita Mikhalkov--has displayed with infinite subtlety, Malle does here with neither urgency nor particular freshness.
Malle, superb at puncturing the rich right during the political upheaval of the 1950s in "Murmur of the Heart" is reduced to creating a midnight trek by all concerned to avoid being massacred in their beds by revolutionary mobs. Silly and arbitrary, it's an exhausted excuse for closure. Better is the final farewell of son and mother, gently sentimental but at least in keeping with the tone of the rest of "May Fools."
An Orion Classics release. Executive producer Vincent Malle. Director Louis Malle. Screenplay Louis Malle, Jean-Claude Carriere Camera Renato Berta. Sound Jean-Claude Laureux. Editor Emmanuelle Castro. Music Stephane Grappelli With Michel Piccoli, Miou-Miou, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Blanc, Harriet Walter, Bruno Carette, Paulette Dubost, Rozenn Le Tallec, Jeanne Herry-Leclerc.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).