FRENCH BABES are starting out earlier these days. "Three Men and a Cradle," winner of three French Oscars, has had the movie-going Gauls positively gaga over its leading lady in Huggies, six-month-old, anatomically correct baby Marie. The little beauty, played by two infants actually, is the indisputable star of this lullaby from the Champs-Elyse'es.
It is a sweet but stalled feminist farce, which finds three confirmed bachelors cooing over poopy diapers and baby's mashed peas. But they're as inept at mothering as the American sitcom male once was, and the expected pediatric hijinks ensue. The farce is forced and not all that funny, but the French have responded as if it were "Candide."
But here we are in the U.S.A. and "Tootsie" has come and gone. Men are currently rediscovering their masculinity and women reaffirming their right to motherhood. It seems unlikely that role-reversal comedy will catch on with the American masses, but Disney has already commissioned a remake from "Cradle" writer-director Coline Serreau.
Serreau, who directed "Oedipus Rex" for Italian TV, takes a serious approach to comedy with "Cradle," and a slow-moving one, too. Her actors, an interchangeable trio of middle-aged men, are a grumpy, frumpy bunch. They seem about to weep when not obliged to dote madonna-like on baby Marie. The child is deposited on their doorstep with a note: "Jacques, this is Marie, the fruit of our passion. I am going to New York for six months and leaving her for you to look after."
The men -- Roland Giraud, Andre Dussollier, Michel Bouhjenah -- are bachelor roommates, anachronistic males who measure their machismo by conquests made. Never mind that they have bodies like deflated bagpipes, the young mademoiselles fling themselves in their beds like salmon headed up the spawning ladders.
One of them, a flight attendant who fathered the baby, leaves on vacation before the little bundle arrives. The other two contend with the charming chubby gurgler. Serreau contrived a subplot, having to do with a second bundle, this one of dope, thereby assuring the French of a few fun flaps with les flics. But the rough-and-tumble comedy of errors is clearly out of context in this claustrophobic setting of soft, rosy light, Oriental carpets and antiques.
The men in the meantime develop their nurturing instincts to the fullest when the mother returns to reclaim Marie. They gleefully return to such pursuits as previously made them happy, but become more and more depressed when they realize how really empty and vapid and useless they are without baby Marie.
The point is well taken, but, basically, "Cradle" is a long rapturous interlude of baby pictures, now and then reinforced with pointed pro-momma dialogue. Even with the politics, it remains just so much French Pablum.
THREE MEN AND A CRADLE (PG-13) -- In French with English subtitles at the Fine Arts.