Riad Sattouf’s follow-up to teen laffer “The French Kissers” is a gender-bending farce with more than a touch of Monty Python, set in an authoritarian nation where women are in control and men, dressed in burqa-like outfits, are the subservient sex. “Jacky in the Kingdom of Women” riffs on the Cinderella story in amusing ways, hewing to the fairy tale while making audiences question, via absurdist counter-equivalents, patriarchal assumptions of modern life. Over-sensitive Islamists will cry ridicule, yet the Syrian-born Sattouf skewers all sexist and absolutist notions. Better yuks would likely have improved disappointing local B.O. following a late January opening.
Helmer-scripter Sattouf’s background as a comicbook artist — the pic is derived from a story in his series “Pascal Brutal” — comes through in the film’s cartoonish charm and the clear-cut way he handles narrative, conjuring an entire world complete with invented words and phrases. As with the best farces, the satirical nature of the conceit is rooted in a desire to turn accepted, repressive behaviors on their head, and while “Jacky” achieves this goal, and boasts stellar cameos to boot, it only fitfully lives up to its promise.
The horse-worshipping Popular and Democratic Republic of Bubunne is part North Korea, part tribal Afghanistan, ruled with an iron fist by General Bubunne XVI (Anemone). Jacky (Vincent Lacoste, “The French Kissers”) is the prettiest boy in his village, fought over by all the women, who suggestively size him up and ply him with lewd propositions. Madly in love with the omnipresent image of the General’s hardened daughter the Colonel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he’s hopeful he’ll be chosen as her consort, the “Big Dummy,” at the upcoming grand ball, where all eligible men will be presented for the Colonel’s consideration.
When Jacky’s mother (Laure Marsac) dies, his dreams seem crushed as he becomes a slave for his aunt (Noemi Lvovsky) and uncle Brunu (Didier Bourdon); the latter, in full evil stepmother guise, does all he can to ensure his sons Vergio (Anthony Sonigo) and Juto (William Lebghil) get a coveted spot at the ball. Fortunately Julin (Michel Hazanavicius), the best friend of Jacky’s late father, rescues him just when needed, and Jacky gets to go to the ball.
Setting this farce in a country whose rigid repression of the male sex is designed to recall Islamic fundamentalism may make politically correct audiences uneasy; even the ball has parallels with the hajj, with the men, dressed all in white, circling around as if surrounding the Ka’aba. Sattouf’s provocation is of course deliberate, yet riffing on Taliban-inspired customs threatens to lessen his more general goal of mocking sexist assumptions, no matter the culture or religion. It’s all a cute conceit, but the script isn’t quite funny or punchy enough to sustain a feature.
French speakers will best appreciate the inventive word twists (though subtitles are impressively creative), designed to call attention to the ways language is used to further gender dominance. External shots were done in Georgia (the country), whose Soviet-era barracks have the kind of Pyongyang feel Sattouf was seeking. Visuals generally feel sparse, no doubt intentionally, leading up to crowded scenes at the ball.