Louis Malle's "May Fools" has a quality of mellow contentment. You feel in its images a sense of sunny embrace, a feeling of comfort and leisure and warm sensuality. You absorb it, the way you do the dappled light in the paintings of Renoir, or a clear, vivid day with a blanket laid out in the grass and wine rising in your blood. You bask in it.
The movie is Malle's homage to those pleasures we think of as particularly French, and in making it, he is working out of the most affectionate, the most humane part of his nature; it's his most easy-flowing, bountiful movie. The film's spirit is one of affectionate satire, and its style suggests a commingling of Chekhov and Mozart and both Renoirs -- the filmmaker, Jean, and his father, Pierre Auguste.
The story it tells is projected against the events of May 1968 when, all over France, a wave of radicalism threatened to leave sweeping social changes in its wake. The film's setting, though, is far away from the strikes and the riots and the free-thinking students who led them. At the rather ramshackle old country estate where the movie takes place, these upheavals are threatening only in a distant, abstract way. Life for Milou (Michel Piccoli), the amiable older son who presides over the house with help of the family matriarch (Paulette Dubost) and their meager staff, is as it has been for most of his 60-odd years -- peaceful, unstructured and geared to the rhythms of nature. But with the mother's death and the gathering of the clan for her funeral, Milou's world teeters as precariously on the edge of revolution as the rest of the country. Everywhere, change is in the air.
Though Malle and his co-writer, Jean-Claude Carriere, draw these comparisons for us, they don't force them. Most of the information about what's happening back in the city comes by way of broadcasts on a battered old radio that sits irreverently close to where the body of the old woman has been laid out, or from members of the family as they arrive. For years, most of the family has remained distant from the family home, paying little attention to the estate or Milou, its ne'er-do-well custodian. Each one, though, has his own designs on the place. Most of them are united in the feeling that for too long Milou has benefited from their generosity. His daughter, Camille (Miou-Miou), the pampered wife of a doctor and mother of three, begins immediately to go through her grandmother's jewelry, while his brother, Georges (Michel Duchaussoy), and their niece, Claire (Dominique Blanc), plot the sale of the house and the division of the profits.
Milou, meanwhile, looks on with horror, powerless as his way of life is systematically dismantled. Yet in the face of all this, a kind of giddiness overwhelms him. When Georges's son, Pierre-Alain (Renaud Danner), shows up, full of radical ardor and tales of a new order where people make love openly in the streets, "just for the pleasure of it," Milou's worries melt away. And the others are swept up in euphoria as well.
Suddenly, new alliances are being forged. The casual flirting that Milou has indulged in with Lily (Harriet Walter), Georges's younger, liberal-seeming English wife, takes on a new urgency. Claire's lover (Rozenn Le Tallec) takes up with Pierre-Alain, and Claire with the randy trucker who gave Pierre-Alain a lift. For a moment, they all lose their inhibitions. Picnicking under a tree, they drink wine and smoke pot and let their fantasies soar. And in that idyllic instant, something new seems to be dawning.
These sun-licked afternoon scenes have a dreamy lyricism and beauty; they're masterful in a quiet, understated way. Malle and Carriere poke gentle fun at the fatuity of this bourgeois play-acting, but they don't begrudge the characters their kicks. There's a marvelous scene in which the group, flying high from their indulgences and all that talk of free love, treat themselves to a rambunctious conga (which just happens to snake around the mother's body). And another in which Claire, as the militant front line in the new sexual revolution, takes off her blouse (in front of everyone) and offers her body for experimentation.
Malle has called "May Fools" a "divertimento," and throughout, his touch remains musical, delicate and precise. All the elements -- including Renato Berta's luxuriant images and Stephane Grappelli's kicky jazz score -- are kept in perfect balance. The acting too. At the center of it all is Piccoli's Milou, the rumpled hedonist, and this graceful, resonant actor gives him just the right touch of charming laziness and self-absorption. Piccoli is marvelously ingratiating in the role.
Milou has never quite grown up, and there's a paunchy innocence in his simplicity that makes him seem compatible to the new shifts in the culture. He's a natural flower child. Ultimately, though, what he comes to represent is the resilience of tradition and the status quo. After the storm clouds of radicalism have passed, very little of real consequence has changed. And earlier in his career, this might have provoked rancor in Malle. But there's a generous acceptance in the director's point of view. With age (and perhaps the distance of living part time in America), he seems to have come to peaceful -- though clear-eyed -- terms with his Gallic roots. The last section of the movie falters; at just the point when we need some resolution for his ideas, some sense of closure, the picture dribbles away into vagueness. But the movie's spirit is infectious; its effects are the same as those of Grappelli's music -- it makes your limbs hang looser, your soul unclench. If this isn't a great movie, it's a radiant, pleasurable, nearly great one.
May Fools, at the Key, is rated R and contains some nudity.