A clue to the bland state of French film just now can be taken from the news that "3 Men and a Cradle" won the equivalent of three Oscars in France: Cesars for best film, screenplay and supporting actor. It's like hearing that "Just Between Friends" swept the Academy Awards.
"3 Men and a Cradle" (at the Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas and the Town & Country) is a perfectly pleasant little piffle; watching it with an audience you'll probably hear, as I did, that soft cooing sound people make at the sight of a really adorable baby. This picture won't rot your brain or lead your children into nasty habits. It's just French pablum.
Absolutely nothing about it is unpredictable. How will three womanizing Parisian bachelors react when little Marie, one of the screen's most beguiling 3-month-olds, is dropped at their doorstep? Quite right: with horror, resistance and an eventual softening to the point of runniness, like overripe Brie.
Faced with 100 minutes of wee cunningness and not a surprise in sight, you might think that writer-director Coline Serreau would tell her story with inventiveness or a quick, light style to distract us. You might certainly expect as much from the director of the 1979 "Pourquoi Pas?," a blithe rondelay of sexual preferences.
No dice. Serreau makes her point--that "motherhood" isn't a matter of gender, and that being needed beats empty sexual conquest every time--in a hushed, reverent visual style. For music, she uses the sublime Adagio from Schubert's C-major Quintet, heart-stopping stuff whose use here should do for Schubert what "Elvira Madigan" did for Mozart. However, it effectively smothers any lurking fun, if there's any to be had from a plot involving crossed wires when first a baby, then a delivery of drugs are left in the care of an innocent and unsuspecting trio of self-styled French swingers.
It's not necessary to pay much attention to this drug subplot; Serreau lets it simply disappear two-thirds of the way through. And you could say the same for three-fourths of the men's hectoring exchanges, whose timing seems fatally awry.
For 75% of "3 Men and a Cradle" (MPAA-rated: PG 13 for vulgar language in subtitles) to heighten the claustrophobic experience of life with a new baby, we're closeted in one enormous apartment, the shared digs of Jacques, an airline steward (Andre Dussollier); Pierre, an ad man (Roland Giraud), and Michel, a slightly tubby young cartoonist (Michel Boujenah, who won the supporting actor award).
It's a swagged, draped, muraled suite of such staggeringly elegant proportions and detailing (the work of one production designer and six art directors) that it seems to have been ripped from the pages of Maison et Jardin. The cinematography bathes it in a soft apricot glow that heightens the communion with babyhood, with all its very real and tender pleasures.
It's color-coordinated, of course, as a sumptuous setting for tiny auburn-haired Marie (the most endearing screen baby since the ones in "Popeye" and "Trouble in Mind"). And part of the joke is to watch baby impedimenta begin to encroach on its perfection. You notice its lighting only when Jacques goes to Nice, in the desperate hope of sticking his mother with the baby. Her house, which is on the Cote d'Azur and might presumably be full of sun, is all apricot shadows too. Could it run in the family?
This gauzy beauty, this thin script gives us plenty of time to wonder about Serreau's mystifyingly anachronistic men. These are guys in the 1980s--with house rules that no woman sleeps over more than a single night (!?!). They seem to have walked straight out of a '60s sex farce, with the semaphoring gestures of that genre intact. Is le relationship unknown in Paris, city of (apricot) lights? If so, someone should have told Renoir, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Pialat or Agnes Varda. (More about her, shortly.)
To make her point about the humanizing effect of life around a baby, Serreau has created a trio of buddies in their 30s and 40s, unmarried, unattached and untouched by anything more than one-night stands. That's pretty eerie right there.
What's even more unreal is that once their nurturing instincts are tapped, they become more motherly than their own mothers (Jacques, a little soused, even tries, with a pillow, for the pregnant look), but no more open to serious relationships with women--only with babies; with one another, buddy-buddy fashion, or with a grown woman acting like something out of "Baby Doll."
As the French say, bi-zarre.
Well, you could go for the baby (Gwendoline Mourlet as the tiny Marie, Jennifer Moret as the toddler). Or the decor. Or the music, or sweet, good Michel Boujenah as the cartoonist. But do not write off French movies permanently. Agnes Varda's Venice Grand Prize winner "Vagabond" will be here before too long as proof that French film can again have something to say of deep and lingering effect.