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Friday, 4 December 2009

May Fools (1990)

Director: Louis Malle
Stars: Miou-Miou and Michel Piccoli
It's May 1968 and the students are rising up in Paris. Cars are burned, students arrested, police injured, the usual. At the Vieuzac family estate out in the country, they're merely hearing about it on the radio, but they soon have bigger worries: Mrs Vieuzac, crying in the kitchen because she's slicing onions, has a heart attack and dies, prompting a gathering of the family to pick over the inheritance like gannets, even before the funeral. It's a gorgeous estate, with a large ivy coated house, a vineyard and wine cellar, regardless whether the property makes any money or not, so all the inevitable talk of division, selling the property and drawing lots for the furniture, is painful to watch if the characters weren't so joyously painted. Eventually we realise that what this family is going through is just a microcosm of the revolution at a whole.

It's a large family. Mrs Vieuzac had three children, of which two sons survive, Emile and Georges. Emile, known to one and all as Milou, has always lived on the estate and as is pointed out at one point he bears a lot of similarities to it. He's a real character, wonderfully played by Michel Piccoli, who is utterly alive regardless of his age, happy to flirt with the ladies and then wander off into the river to catch crayfish by merely waiting for them to grab hold of his fingers. He wants to live and die in the house that carries all his memories and he's the only one who doesn't seem to generate arguments. He has all our sympathies.

His brother Georges is a journalist, the London correspondent for Le Monde, but he's on sabbatical to write a book. He arrives from St Tropez with his wife Lily, a bangled and colourful Englishwoman who he met on a plane and who speaks pretty decent French. The third heir is Milou's niece, Claire, who arrives with her girlfriend Marie-Laure. She's an antiques dealer, older than her years, possibly because she was trapped for three hours in the car that took the lives of her parents and left her with a limp. She's a highly complex character, ably portrayed by Dominique Blanc. All these characters have depth, Blanc merely gets more opportunity to demonstrate hers.

Most obvious of the rest is Camille, who as Milou's daughter doesn't inherit anything but nonetheless gets there first so she can pick through the jewellery and pretend that it was gifted to her years ago. She's excellently played by actress Miou-Miou as a bundle of emotions, ruthless and eager to make things happen, apparently in control of her life but really full of fear and paranoia. Partly this may be because her husband promptly disappears again, far too busy to attend his mother-in-law's funeral or help look after his three children, a pair of young twin boys and a daughter Françoise, played by Miou-Miou's real life daughter Jeanne Herry.

Françoise may actually be the most important character in the Vieuzac family. She's a constant presence throughout this film, conspiciously hanging out with her grandpa Milou rather than her mother, because she seems to have far more kinship with Milou, bizarrely given the circumstances. She provides us with a comedic element, asking Milou no end of embarrassing questions based on what she hears, which is almost everything. What's minimum wage? What's a dyke? Why does Aunt Claire tie up her friend? She's the future, not just as a young girl learning about the world, but as someone who belongs to the house the way Milou belongs to the house. I believe that if there were a sequel to this film, perhaps beginning with Milou's death, his will would deliberately skip Camille and give the house to Françoise to continue it on through another few generations.

And while all we see is the upheaval in the Vieuzac household, it's impossible to ignore the events of 1968 in this film, and how the two tie together. In part it's a constant because Georges keeps the radio on as much he possibly can to keep track of what's happening, but its ramifications reach as far out from Paris as this rural village. Mrs Vieuzac can't be buried because even the undertakers go on strike, part of the two thirds of the French workforce who eventually join in. As a direct consequence of the strike, supplies are running out. The house loses power a couple of times and people keep running out of petrol before getting there. Eventually Georges's son Pierre-Alain arrives, having been given a lift from a truck driver who had to turn back or face having his rig burned. Pierre-Alain is someone firmly on the side of the students, being one himself. He spouts plenty of rhetoric, triggering discussion, arguments and eventually action, though of course his integrity is well and truly hammered given the circumstances that unfold.

The Vielzacs become a microcosm of the revolution most obviously in the picnic scene, where everything begins to change. They've all been wary of each other, not just sizing up the opposition when it comes to the inheritance but in who's going to end up with who. Lily hangs around with Milou not Georges, Marie-Laure with Pierre-Alain not Claire, even Camille with the lawyer David who had asked her to marry him years before. Yet at the picnic they pass around a joint, talk about sex and tap into the revolutionary spirit of the time, imagining free men and free women, living in harmony, never having to work, sleeping with anyone they like.

Of course reality has to return, as we're constantly reminded by glimpses of Leonce digging Mrs Vieuzac's grave under the old cedar. After all, the undertakers are on strike along with everyone else. Only Leonce and Adele stay working. They're the two servants who seem to be as tied to the family estate as Milou, carrying on even though they don't seem to be paid too often or too well and sure enough, Adele ends up with a quarter of the inheritance through a codicil to Mrs Vieuzac's will in gratitude for her service and companionship. Leonce is the first thing we see in the film, with a beehive on his head. As reality returns their bubble is popped, just as it would soon be for the students and strikers, and the house goes on as before just like General de Gaulle.

I'm sure a student of French history would be able to draw many more parallels than I did but even I could see many. It's a wonderful story, masterfully told and at once thoroughly thought provoking and blissfully relaxing, the Stéphane Grappelli soundtrack helping on that front. Louis Malle was a stunning film director, though one who could be rather inconsistent. I'm now one picture away from being halfway through his career which has ranged from films as poor as Place de la république and as average but disappointing as Black Moon to good ones like Zazie in the Subway and excellent ones like Murmur of the Heart. I'd put this up there with the true classics like Elevator to the Gallows, Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir, les enfants, very different films from very different parts of Malle's filmography, but all stunning.

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