Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fantastic Fest ’14: Jacky in the Kingdom of Women

Islamist apologists always assure us that Muslim women feel more comfortable and empowered in restrictive clothes. Here’s their chance to try the burqa on for size. It the backward fictional nation of Bubunne, women have all legal authority and subjugate their uneducated men like chattel. One sad sack man-victim harbors a deep crush on the supreme leader’s heir apparent-daughter, but he has lost his ticket to the grand ball in Riad Sattouf’s satirical Cinderella-riff, Jacky in the Kingdom of Women (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Fantastic Fest.

As a male “pleb,” Jacky is about as low as it gets in Bubunne, but women find him attractive (there’s no accounting for taste in this militarist theocracy), so he has always hoped General Bubunne XVI’s daughter, logically known as The Colonel, would choose him to be her “Big Dummy.” Unfortunately, when Jacky’s mother dies, his mean aunt and uncle give his ticket to the cattle-call ball to his ugly cousin. Yet, through a series of misadventures, Jacky will somehow gatecrash the soiree, disguised as a woman, Twelfth Night style.

Although the official religion of Bubunne venerates horses instead of a prophet, it is not hard to see what it is based on. Given the chadors worn by men, the frequent denunciations of blasphemy, public executions, and rampant sexism and homophobia, if you cannot recognize Bubunne as an analog for the Islamist regimes, you are willfully blind enough to work children’s protective services in Rotherham.

It is therefore little exaggeration to describe Sattouf’s screenplay as extraordinarily bold, but Twenty-First Century viewers might wish his satire came with more jokes. However, the audience that could probably stand to gain the most from seeing the gender tables turned is not exactly known for its collective funny bone. Subtlety can also be an iffy proposition, but Kingdom’s depiction of religiously justified oppression should be in-your-face enough to register some kind of response (like a fatwa).

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as the Colonel is also rather brave, for a host of reasons that would be spoilery to explain. It is safe to say she is a good sport, whose mysterious screen presence perfectly suits the film. However, Vincent Lacoste’s Jacky is so passive and pathetic, viewers will want to bully him along with the rest of the film’s villains. At least Michel Hazanavicius brings some redemptive verve as Julin, an underground propagandist who was close friends with Jacky’s late father. Anémone (co-star of the beloved holiday classic, Santa Stinks) also shows a flair for physical humor as the miserable old General.

Kingdom earns considerable points for satirizing subjects that consider themselves off limits to such treatment, but the characters and narrative never really engage on an emotional level. Still, when it is funny, the jokes also land with a sting. Recommended on balance for free-thinkers, Jacky in the Kingdom of Women screens again this coming Monday (9/22) as part of this year’s Fantastic Fest.