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Jacky in the Kingdom of Women
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by Jay Seaver

"All the ladies love a man who can fill out a chador!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The fact that the satire in "Jacky in the Kingdom of Women" so often seems silly rather than particularly cutting might just be the most damning indictment of entrenched gender roles that there is; the whole thing seems ridiculous from a different perspective. The good news is, that goofy nature gives filmmaker Riad Sattouf a chance to go off in a bunch of different funny directions rather than just hammering at the one thing throughout.

Jacky (Vincent Lacoste) is a young man in the country of Bubunne, which means he is a second-class citizen who cannot go out without being covered from head to toe, but that is all right, because he is expected to look after his factory-worker mother (Laure Marsac) until he can be married off, because what else are men good for? His friend Julin (Michel Hazanavicius) dreams of emigrating, but Jacky's dreams involve Colonelle Bubunne XVII (Carlotte Gainsbourg), the beautifully stern heir to the throne whose mother la generale (Anemone) is throwing a ball to find her daughter a Big Dummy of her own. But entry is expensive, and even if he could afford it, his cousins Vergio (William Lebghil) and Juto (Anthony Sonigo) are more than willing to act the wicked stepbrothers in this Cinderella story.

Movies are a sideline for Sattouf; he's a cartoonist by trade, although few of his albums appear to be available in the United States, including the one that serves as the source for this movie. That a bande dessinee was the source isn't surprising when you look at the movie, it's full of visual whimsy presented in solid colors and cute designs that occasionally hide a sense of humor with a mean streak. It's gleefully exaggerated, right down to the pseudo-baby talk that most characters speak in - "horsums" are the national animal, they eat 'plantums", and to question that they can speak to some people is "blasphemery" - the cinematic equivalent of the sort of broad cartooning that doesn't require enough realism for the audience to believe in it so long as they can enjoy it and get the important bits out.

The main targets of his satire are obvious, especially when you consider that he is of middle-eastern descent and spent much of his childhood in Syria and North Africa, but it's easy to overlook that he's not just talking about the sexism that is the norm in many countries (some more than others) but having a poke at other kinds of stratification in class. And while he heaps jokes high, both poking fun at these issues and based around many of the characters not being very bright, he's also building a surprisingly solid structure underneath and making scenes that could be movie-derailing disasters instead move the plot along. The plot can sometimes be a little too loose, but it never gets away from him.

He's also got a couple of very well-selected actors in the lead. Vincent Lacoste is physically a perfect fit, not just for the face that projects just the right sort of affable, mildly selfish dimness, but for how well he fills out a military uniform when the cross-dressing hijinks begin (and give Sattouf and the costume department credit for not letting those scenes feel "normal" given the role reversals that this movie is already built around). It's also no small trick to make a character that is going to be somewhat shallow, both because that makes the jokes funnier and because the director wants the audience to self-insert a bit, and give him as much presence as Lacoste does. Jacky is often a buffoon, but one who seldom crosses the line from amusing to annoying.

The film's biggest weakness is that he doesn't have any great characters to play off of until Charlotte Gainsbourg's Bubunne XVII shows up in person rather than popping up on television screens, but Gainsbourg rectifies that quickly. It might be going a bit to far to say that she stands out by playing it straight - as much as her job is often to set things up by being just smart and self-aware enough to make the insanity around her not flow smoothly, she often makes scenes funnier by giving them just the right push. I like the way she manages to present the colonel's tricky sexuality and chafing at her culture's ideas of femininity as something she has to live with, especially when she confesses that she really doesn't like horses that much.

"Jacky" may spend its time hitting obvious targets, but they're obvious targets we may take for granted and Sattouf goes after them in ways that are both more broadly funny and well thought out than audiences may expect. I suspect the movie may be too weird to get any kind of wide release outside France, Belgium, or maybe Quebec, but I hope it pops up in places where audiences that can appreciate its sort of absurdity can find it, because there's an audience that this is made for that deserves to see it on the big screen.

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originally posted: 07/19/14 03:20:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
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