Three Men and a Baby (1987) is yuppie coaxing, Eighties pap - yet perversely, one of this writer’s earliest cinema-going memories - but what of the French original? Writer-director Coline Serreau’s comedy was one of the biggest international hits of its era, and won best picture at France’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Cesar awards. Its comic set-up is ingeniously simple: Pierre (Roland Giraud), Michel (Michel Boujenhah), and Jacques (André Dussolier), three fun-loving bachelors have their lives turned upside down with the arrival of two packages - a shipment of heroin and a baby girl, Marie.
The way Coline Serreau launches into her story without meandering scenes explaining whom everyone is (No pop video intros featuring Gloria Estefan here, folks!) provides a lesson in good screenwriting: characters defined by action, propelling the plot forward. The Hollywood remake takes the drugs sub-plot into that most Eighties of genres, the yuppies-in-peril comedy/thriller. Serreau uses hand held-cameras to stage genuinely heart-stopping scenes: the aftermath of the smugglers’ raid, where Pierre fears Marie has been kidnapped and a sublime, nicely underplayed confrontation at the supermarket. Michel - hitherto meek and neurotic - nearly murders the creep who threatens ‘his’ baby. Being a parent changes you forever.
After that, Serreau concentrates on the real story, confronting her hapless bachelors with nappy changes, crying fits, sleepless nights, and unsympathetic party guests - stuff familiar to parents (mothers in particular) the world over. They’re decent guys - the truly callous would’ve dumped Marie with social services - but Serreau avoids saccharine sentimentality by showing their occasional resentment towards the poor, little mite. Fewer cutesy scenes and greater emotional intensity leave this less dated than its remake, though Serreau’s moving, romantic comedy Romuald et Juliette (1989) remains her best film. Roland Giraud and Michel Boujenhah - who directed his own treatise on fatherhood, Fathers and Sons (2003) - are experienced comic performers whose scenes fizzle with energy. Veteran character actor André Dussolier’s soliloquy bemoaning men’s inability to give birth is both hilarious and touching. Later, the arrival of Sylvia (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) enables the heroes to empathise with problems experienced by single mothers.
Trois homes et un Couffin remains too superficial to truly reassess the role of the father in society, but the heroes’ slow-blossoming love for Marie is charming, and Serreau’s conclusion pleases, being less fairytale smug than its American doppelganger. Nearly two decades on, Serreau delivered a sequel: 18 Years Later (2003). Unavailable in the UK, the critical consensus suggests it was a dud. But, based on past evidence, one is inclined to give Serreau the benefit of the doubt. After all, could it be any worse than Three Men and a Little Lady (1990)?