Louis Malle’s May Fools is a lovely throwback to an era when directors would toss a couple of dozen characters up on screen and watch them intermingle like so many overgrown children. The movie owes much to Chekhov and Rules of the Game, but its sunny, down-home atmosphere — a blend of satire and celebration — comes closer to that of the rambunctious ensemble comedies of the past two decades, films like Day for Night, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, and even The Big Chill. May Fools isn’t quite in their class, but it’s a fond reminder, a feel-good art movie made in a spirit of giddy democracy.
Tradition dictates that these films revolve around food, adultery, and much happily sloshed dinner-table philosophizing about the sweet, sad passing of eras. It’s no wonder the French do them better than just about anybody. Set during the legendary student demonstrations of May 1968, May Fools is about an extended family that comes together to mourn the passing of its eldest member, a land-owning matriarch who has spent half a century living on her beautiful (if crumbling) rural estate. Her son, Milou (Michel Piccoli), who has been there his whole life, is desperate to hold on to the property. It’s the only place he knows — and besides, he rather likes his indolent existence, which consists mostly of catching crayfish and daydreaming about his boyhood.
But the other family members, who have all arrived from the city, are eager to sell the farm and divide the profits. Not a lot of mourning gets done. Most of these pacified urban dwellers couldn’t be less concerned with the death of an ancient relative (or with the political upheavals unfolding practically down the block, in Paris). They’re all petty, cynical, casually self-centered — and Malle loves them for it.
In addition to Piccoli’s childish but soulful Milou, the characters include Milou’s younger brother (Michel Duchaussoy), a world-weary correspondent for Le Monde; his daughter (Miou-Miou), a cool and proper physician’s wife; a randy truck driver (Bruno Carette) who, in a typically impish moment, sidles up to one of the comelier females at the wake and tells her she looks great in black; a leftist protester (Renaud Danner) who shows off the bruises he received from police beatings as though they were stigmata; and a little girl who’s on hand to voice show-stopping queries like, ”What is sperm?”
It would be easy to imagine Malle contrasting the vanities of his characters with the sterling idealism of the student strikers. Instead, he tweaks our expectations: the May ’68 uprising, which takes place almost entirely off screen, becomes the French Woodstock — a case of middle-class ”radicals” inflating several days of fearless rhetoric into a self- canceling utopia. Even the sexual revolution is viewed mainly as a technological accident, the inevitable result of the invention of the Pill. The film’s hindsight view of the ’60s verges on the smug, yet that’s part of its leisurely, bourgeois charm; Malle knows that ditching middle-class values is far easier said than done. May Fools has its meandering passages, particularly the precious final section, in which everyone escapes to the woods to flee the oncoming rebellion. Still, it’s a funny and wise-spirited movie.