Farce, even when it’s wild, demands a sophisticated, even gentle hand, so that the plot’s twists and turns can intertwine seamlessly and upend one another skillfully. This is the hub around which the director Sou Abadi falters in her farce, “Cherchez la femme” (English title: “Some Like It Veiled”). The potential is here for a singular film, as it refers to issues that are roiling French society today. But so clumsily does the director go about fulfilling her comic intentions that she actually seems to be trying to coerce the audience’s laughter. The result is a feeling of missed opportunity, tinged with embarrassment.
The film by Iranian-born Abadi, who has lived in France for the past 35 years, since she was 15, is about Armand (Felix Moati), who is from a family that fled Iran after the Islamist revolution and is fully integrated into France’s secular bourgeois life. Armand is in love with Leila (Camelia Jordana), a Muslim woman who lives in a Paris suburb; she is his fellow student at a prestigious university. The two lovers plan to go to New York together to intern at the United Nations.
However, their plans go awry when Mahmoud (William Lebghil), Leila’s older brother, returns from a stay in the Middle East, where he underwent a process of religious radicalization. His goal now is to rescue Leila from the Western lifestyle and transform her into a religiously observant woman. Since the parents of Mahmoud, Leila and her younger brother, Sinna (Carl Malapa), are dead, Mahmoud is the head of the family. He prohibits Leila from meeting with Armand and locks her in her room. The film depicts Mahmoud not as a dangerous jihadist, but as a family tyrant. Because the upheavals he undergoes lack any ideological foundation, his character emerges as hollow, almost a joke.
Armand, who wants to go on seeing Leila, puts on a burka, adopts a feminine voice, studies the Koran and insinuates himself into Mahmoud’s home under the guise of having been sent to teach Leila the precepts of Islam. Mahmoud has no objections to Leila closeting herself in her room with the religious woman who has come to counsel her. This is the springboard for a situation comedy that Abadi tries to steer her way through. Complications set in when Mahmoud, who only sees Armand’s eyes and responds to the piety he exudes, falls in love with the person in the burka and wants to marry “her.”
I have to point out that the movie’s Hebrew title, “Sippur Kisui” (“Cover Story”) is far more appropriate than both the clichéd original, “Cherché la femme,” and the English version, “Some Like It Veiled,” with its referencing of Billy Wilder’s comedy “Some Like It Hot,” in which men also dress up as women. But any similarity in the quality of the two films is purely coincidental and only underscores the gap between them.
Abadi’s movie is rife with ostensibly comic scenes in which Armand’s true identity is almost exposed. His parents, appalled at his newfound religiosity, begin to worry that they have failed in their role and that they left Iran for nothing. But these scenes lack comic momentum and are not credible. Paradoxical as it may seem, a good farce needs to generate a degree of credibility in the ostensibly artificial plot context it posits.
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A number of French films dealing with the tensions between Muslims and the rest of society in France have been made in the past few years. The idea of producing a farce centering on this social, cultural and political issue is legitimate, and could have been daring. But Abadi botches it, failing to exploit effectively the concept’s latent potential.
With linguistic finagling we can transmute the old Israeli genre of “bourekas movies” – comic melodramas based on ethnic stereotypes that were popular here in the 1950s and 1960s – and coin a new phrase, the “burka comedy.” That’s a pretty pathetic wordplay, I know. But what’s even more pathetic is that it reflects the level of this film, so I don’t apologize for using it.