NEVER TRUST a movie that starts out with bees. It's either going to be a low-budget scareflick or a rural French art film (very likely, a bad one). In the case of Louis Malle's "May Fools," it's the latter.

In this sprawling, low-buzzing drama, the French director takes his cameras to a country home in southwest France and harvests (with a rather deliberate, endearment-heavy air) the usual crop of French-movie themes and elements. Thus, you'll find: 1. Family Gatherings, 2. Love, 3. Death, 4. Tears, 5. Laughter, 6. Rolls in the Hayloft and 7. Insufferable French Children (asking innocently outrageous questions at the dinner table, such as "Grandpa, what's a dyke?").

Of course, no Field of Themes is complete without a picnic blanket crowded with stereotypical French characters. In this case, they are the relatives of matriarch Madame Vieuzac (Paulette Dubost), who have journeyed down to the family estate because the old lady just bought la farm.

Now, as the old woman lies in state downstairs, her three heirs and extended family (including Miou-Miou) discuss whether or not to sell the house. As they wait for the funeral (this is set during the May 1968 uprising and even the gravediggers are on strike), the brothers, sisters, cousins and those precocious children encounter and re-encounter each other in an unending sprawl of vignettes.

The main family member is Milou (Michel Piccoli), Madame Vieuzac's salt-of-the-earth son, the one who never left home. He lives for nature, catches crayfish in the river with his bare hands and refuses to sell the house. His brother Georges (Michel Duchaussoy) is a failed journalist who has brought home a ravishing actress and who (conveniently for us) keeps a constant ear to the radio for news of the Paris revolution. Then there's Claire (Dominique Blanc), Mme. V.'s granddaughter, a lesbian antiques dealer whose ballerina-girlfriend has a rather annoying penchant for plie's and pirouettes and seems to be far more interested in men than women.

Rather than provide an outright family-tree listing (there are more than a dozen significant characters), just be warned you'll be looking at a lot of "ensemble acting." Also be prepared for veteran auteur Malle's attempt to redefine his airy, balmy adolescence in a convoluted, twinkly-eyed glory of themes (that love-death-food thing), with a tribute to Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" and Jean Renoir's classic, country-home movie "Rules of the Game." (It's no coincidence that Dubost played the perky little maid in that 1939 film.)

In a film-making career that has experienced a subtly slow decline, from good ("Murmur of the Heart," "Lacombe Lucien") to moderate ("Pretty Baby," "Atlantic City") to worse ("My Dinner with Andre'," "Goodbye Children"), Malle seems to have finally skeetered over the edge, into self-eulogizing sentimentality.