May Fools: Louis Malle’s Family Melodrama, Set in 1968 in French Countryside

Born in 1932, Louis Malle began his career with Jacques Yves Cousteau, working on the celebrated underwater documentary Le Monde de Silence (The Silent World), in 1956, the first non fiction work to win the Cannes Film Fest top award, Palme d’Or.

Malle also directed two shorts and served as Robert Bresson’s assistant on Un Condamne a Mort s’est echappe/A Man Escaped (1956) before turning out his first solo feature as a director, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud/ Elevator to the Gallows (1957), a stylish psy¬chological thriller noted for Henri Dacae’s darkly atmospheric photography of Paris. The film, which showcased the talent of Jeanne Moreau, enjoyed considerable success and earned for Malle the coveted Prix Delluc.

Malle’s next film, Les Amants/The Lovers (1958), caused much controversy because of its overly explicit sexuality. It became a big commercial hit, internationally establishing the reputations of both its director and star, again Jeanne Moreau. The lyrical love scenes and fluid tracking shots that distinguished this film at the time of its first showing remain more memorable than its intended comment on the vacuity of the French bourgeoisie.

The film won the Special Jury Prize at Venice. Following a change of pace production, the frivolous and baffling Zazie dans le Metro/Zazie (1960), Malle turned out Vie privee/A Very Private Affair (1962), a study of the rise of a film star, starring Brigitte Bardot in a fictionalized biography.

Demonstrating his versatility and the broad range of his concerns and style, Malle made Le Feu Follet/The Fire Within (1963), a somber, keenly observed, sensitively told story of the last few days in the life of a suicidal alcoholic. Again Malle won the Special Jury Prize at Venice, this time in a tie.

Malle embarked on a six month voyage to India, which resulted in a feature length documentary, Calcutta (1969), and a seven part TV series, L’Inde fantome/Phantom India, broadcast internationally to great acclaim and later also shown in movie theaters. The Indian government protested to no avail against what it considered Malle’s excessive interest in the more appalling aspects of life in India, like poverty and overcrowding.

Malle returned to the fictional film with Le Soufflé au Coeur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971), a tenderly and dis¬creetly treated story of adolescence, and Lacombe Lucien (1973), a prix Melies winning character study against the back¬ground of the Nazi Occupation. Both films generated their impact from their moving simplicity.

However, his next film, “Black Moon” (1975), was an eccentric, self indulgent film inspired by Lewis Car¬roll’s “Alice in Wonderland..

In 1978, Malle released his first American made film, the controversial, attention grabbing story of a 12 year old whore, “Pretty Baby.” The atmospheric, beautifully photographed film made a star of a pubescent Brooke Shields. It is still banned in Canada. Malle continued his North American ventures with the Canadian French spon¬sored “Atlantic City” (1980), a moving char¬acter study boasting a superb performance by Burt Lancaster. The film won several international prizes, including the British Film Academy Award.

The director next elicited two delightful performances from two real characters in My Dinner With Andre (1981), an intelligent film consisting entirely of dinner conversations between avant garde theater director Andre Gregory and actor playwright Wallace Shawn.

In 1987, he made Au Revoir les Enfants, a deeply felt childhood memoir of his traumatic experience at a Catholic boarding school that harbored Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of France.

Malle’s international prizes for the film included the Golden Lion at Venice, three Cesars (Best Film, Director, and Screenplay), the British Film Academy Award for Best Director, and the European Film Award for Best Screenplay.

This was followed by “May Fools,” an extremely well acted family melodrama, set at a crucial time, 1968, in the French countryside. The tale revolves around the death of a matriarch, the grandmother, and the effects of this event on various members of her clan, headed by Michel Piccoli, one of the best actors working in French cinema.

In the background, we get glimpses (superficial ones) about the tumultuous events in the capital, the students’ revolution in Paris. Most of the family members, including Miou Miou, are too greedy and self-absorbed to be concerned with the country’s broader politics (hence the title).

There are internal conflicts and arguments, unexpected romantic involvements, but the scenes do not add up to an interesting portraiture, perhaps due to Malle’s light and trivial touches

This film signaled the decline in Malle’s American career.  It was followed by the erotic but trivial father-son melodrama, “Damage,” in 1992, which was well acted by Jeremy Irons, as a dad who falls in love with his son’s girlfriend (Gallic Juliette Binoche, speaking English), and especially by Miranda Richardson as his long-suffering wife