The opening frame of a swarm of buzzing bees is almost a prophetic image of how old Milou's (Michel Piccoli) plush, countryside family home would look soon after. His much older mother dies suddenly, leaving him alone with a faithful old maid Adele. A funeral is planned within the next two days. The closest family members turn up one by one, each bringing with them their own sets of surprises or extended family members.
Set during the month of a massive civil unrest in France, May 1968, Louis Malle's "May Fools" (1990) is a brazenly funny, satirical drama revolving around a dysfunctional family brought together after a long time, for a solemn occasion. Only the sanctity of the funeral is soon diluted, as the reunion turns into a daytime picnic followed by a nighttime misadventure, with clashing egos exposing their underlying pretensions, damaged relationships, and growing insecurities.
The script written by Malle and the great Jean-Claude Carrière is razor sharp, with its biting humour, intelligent, well-timed dialog, and an eclectic bunch of interesting characters to boot. It is fascinating how likeable all of these characters are, despite the blatantly presented fact that they are in no way perfect, and in fact, downright eccentric to the extent of being revolting. All of these characters have diverse traits, all off-the-wall in their own way, but intriguing, nevertheless.
A family that appears close-knit on the surface begins to expose cracks within, that widen over the period of these three days. External forces, not limited to the socio-political turmoil, of course, aggravate matters, as the funeral parlour workers go on strike. The stay of the family members is extended, leaving them more time to spend with each other, much to their reluctance.
Notable is how, the historic event serves entirely as a backdrop while the family gathering and the drama that ensues becomes the focal point. Events are sometimes shocking in how bold they are, even the verbal exchange between characters. It is all, however, delivered with a buoyant, comic tone, thereby alleviating the shock value. And therefore, it's not all that eyebrow raising, when the most loyal torchbearer of the family, Milou, the only one who doesn't want to sell the property of the forefathers, exhibits his wildly flirtatious ways, with not only the domestic help (in the presence of his mother's dead body, no less!) but also the wife of his journalist brother. Not explicit, but certainly hinted at, is also his unusual way of looking at his growing granddaughter Françoise, as he gazes at her bare legs, perhaps in a salacious manner or simply in admiration of how fast and big she has grown.
The brother (Michel Duchaussoy) is another looney, who is more interested in the radio announcement of the current affairs than in his dead mother, so much so that he first listens to the radio upon arrival and later sees his dead mother! He is so much in love with the radio, that he is hardly bothered about his brother's open flirting with his wife. Milou's daughter Camille (Miou-Miou) and the niece Claire (Dominique Blanc), are all the more extreme points on the curve; one, a family woman with three children, and a typically neglectful husband, and the other, a lesbian who brings in a much younger lover, only to lose her to one of her cousins.
The cousin appears to be a pseudo-rebel who joins in with the students merely for the thrill, not for the cause. The bourgeois hypocrisies are exposed in the most savage of ways; Camille bawls out loud about how people use her, and Claire first seduces the truck-driver in a fit of jealousy and later rebukes him by reminding him of his socioeconomic stratum!
The rather morbid comedy stems from how these characters gleefully neglect and disrespect the dead body of their mother, even singing and dancing around it in a stone-drunk frenzy! The priest who comes in to administer some last rites just nonchalantly starts talking about the unrest whilst conducting the ritual. The family engages in revelries, and (thankfully interrupted) sexual games, in what looks like a celebration rather than a mourning. Actions and words highly inappropriate for the occasion are openly exchanged, while in a hilarious repeated gag, Françoise asks her grandpa the meaning of the choicest of words that she isn't even supposed to hear.
In the midst of all this, the insensitive progeny squabble about who will take the silver and the furniture, rather than maintain some peace around the house in the final hours leading to the funeral. Their shameful behavior and the pitiable scheme of things is acknowledged in silence by the dead mother who literally shows up by her gravedigger, with a remorseful expression on her face!
A cultural and inherent class divide is showcased with an important twist regarding the maid Adele in how it ruffles a few feathers, and also with the entry of a rather blunt and foul-mouthed truck-driver who is an uninvited, but helpful guest, driving the old lady's grandson safely to the house in the turbulent atmosphere. The truck-driver's rather brash ways are received with a surprising indifference, despite his openly lustful confessions about the women in the house. It's a brilliant juxtaposition of mirroring events on the outside in the city, which is bustling with protests attacking capitalism and the consumerist culture. The workers take down the bourgeoisie with their strikes, while this funeral event serves as a microcosm for the conflict outside with its own share of a class friction.
And it is a mighty entertaining microcosm at that; for at the end of this scathing dramedy, despite all the deplorable behavior that Malle makes us witness, we come out feeling happy and satisfied in the end.