A tale of two French films: actor goes from incestuous brother to niqab in drag in hilariously bizarre movies

A promotional poster for "Cherchez la Femme" showing Félix Moati as Armand wrapping up in the niqab. (Photo used by permission of Wikimedia)

The French term for “lol” – mort de rire (mdr) – literally translates to “died of laughter.”

That’s a fitting sentiment for an experience at the annual Sacramento French Film Festival (which I can now say I’ve gone to).

Two films – “Gaspard at the Wedding”  and “Some Like it Veiled” – both with actor Félix Moati at the helm, definitely killed me in that sense.

Moati shined in whatever role he was in, whether it was the slightly animalistic but wholeheartedly incestuous brother or the caring boyfriend posing in drag as an incredibly devout niqab-clad Muslim.

Both films will make audience members laugh a lot, but the first (which had its American début on June 22 at the festival) doesn’t do so for the best reasons.

“Gaspard va au Mariage”

“Gaspard va au Mariage” is not quite the “refreshing” film that the program promised.

Think of it as the more unsettling version of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – and do keep in mind that movie took place in World War II-era Poland.

The opening scenes show leading lady Laura (Laetitia Dosch) walking, meeting up with bums by the side of the road, grabbing a croissant and a coffee and then handcuffing herself to train tracks.

These scenes stretch on for much too long; what’s even more grueling for viewers is that they don’t add much to the plot, either.  

Onboard the train stopped by the protesters and Laura (who found herself among them after wanting some food), Gaspard (Moati) uncuffs her and gets her to safety on one condition: she has to attend his father’s wedding with him as his amie.

No, there never will be an answer for where she was going before she got involved but the confusion that comes from the couple’s initial meeting is dwarf-sized compared to what’s to come: the wedding itself.

The wedding is to take place at a zoo. That’s because Gaspard’s family lives at a zoo, or rather, their home is a zoo – figuratively and literally.

In addition to the tigers, rhinos, okapis, etc. is Gaspard’s sister, Coline (Christa Théret), who dresses in a bear skin, growls, sniffs people and has all the horrible traits of a furry without the ability to ever take them off like a fursuit.

The father, Max (Johan Heldenbergh), also has some eccentric habits: never cutting ties in romantic relationships and  stripping down in front of the whole family to let garra rufa fish deal with his dead skin, to name a few.

(Note: scenes with the father au naturel in a fish tank drag on for too long and are too uncomfortable to watch, especially as they once again don’t add anything to the plot.)

Ah, the plot. What exactly the film’s plot is still remains a mystery.

The wedding is in a perpetual state of limbo, so much so that viewers become numb to it and any tension is lost.

Who will actually be wed is up in the air for the entire film. The father is engaged to Peggy (Marina Foïs), but she is reticent to marry; the zoo-hating elder brother is in love with a very artsy tattoo artist; and, of course, in traditional rom-com fashion, Gaspard and Laura start to develop feelings for each other.

But Gaspar also flirts with his sister, who reciprocates it. With more nudity. In a bathroom. For, again, much too long.

The ragtag bunch plans for the wedding and, despite chance always wreaking havoc on the zoo, cares for the dilapidated zoo and its animals (some of whom have been getting mauled by dogs).

Never is the film subtle in pointing out that the zoo’s current state of affairs must and will change, which points to the message that the film beats to death: what is strange must change someday, and that’s OK.

Except, maybe erotic flashbacks featuring an elder brother and his preteen sister aren’t OK.

Ultimately, the film isn’t gratifying. The entire duration of events seem to be building up to something, but nothing ever comes to fruition save for a wedding (and not necessarily Max’s).

There is also little resolution save for some very cheesy lines about love and individuality.

Having finished the film, audience members might be wondering a single word: “Why?”

Without any answers to all the questions audience members think in their heads, the film seems to have been a waste of time.

Of course, minus the scenes of strange sibling sensuality that are unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

“Some Like it Veiled”

Scheherazade is the ideal pious Muslim woman. She is almost fluent in Quran sutras, using them to give advice to women and children; she speaks softly; and she is so modest that she walks the streets of Paris in a long, black niqab, showing only her gorgeously mascara-ed eyes to passersby.

But just one catch: she’s a he. (A bit he-ram, isn’t it?)

He’s Armand (Moati), to be exact – the son of Iranian immigrants who fled to Paris after the Iranian Revolution and thus one of the most secular students at the Parisian Institute of Political Science.

No, this is not some kind of fetish. (This isn’t “Gaspard va au Mariage” again, thankfully.)

This is his way of disguising himself beyond recognition for his girlfriend, fellow poli-sci college student, Leila (Camélia Jordana).

No, his girlfriend isn’t a closeted lesbian. And, no, she doesn’t force him to do this either.

When Leila’s brother, Mahmoud (William Lebghil), comes back from Yemen donning a taqiyah and keffiyeh, tears down pictures of his and his sister’s deceased “infidel” relatives, replaces them with a propaganda poster of the radical founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and banishes Leila to her room until her arranged marriage, it seems as though Leila’s world is prophetically coming to an end.

Now on house arrest, Leila’s plan to go to New York with Armand for an international relations course is dashed.

Mahmoud further forbids her from seeing any men or non-Muslim women, even striking down Armand when he attempts to reach Leila.

It is then that Armand, with the help of his friends at an immigrant-assistant facility, creates his Arabian alter-ego, Scheherazade. Mahmoud allows the two to see each other under the pretense that Scheherazade is there to be taught English and teach religion.

However, Armand may have perfected piousness too well, for Mahmoud falls madly in love with Scheherazade and seeks to be wed with her, thus forming the funniest love triangle I’ve ever seen.

This movie is side-splitting. The jokes are constant and range from secularity versus religion in France, communist revolutions and Islamic history to classic slapstick clowning around or the hilarity that comes from seeing some men’s drag transformations.

In virtually every scene there is some hysterically awkward exchange or stunt, so it’s difficult to get that next breath in before the next crazy scene.

Because the movie is short and fast-paced, all the punchlines flow seamlessly. It’s impossible to get bored.

Also, boredom at a more cerebral level is kept at bay through the film’s various layers. Mahmoud isn’t just the archetypical baddie; there are two opposing sides in this film: the ultra-secular and the ridiculously fundamental, and director Sou Abadi ensures that jokes are not directed disproportionately to only one side.

The communist father and overly zealous revolutionary mother of Arnand are very much the yin to Mahmoud’s yang – his Three-Stooges-like Muslim Brotherhood friends.

It’s through the dichotomy of the two groups – Muslim fundamentalists and communist secularists – that director Abadi can make her political statements about tolerance, showing that neither side is completely right nor wrong.

Comedy aside, this film preaches tolerance and is a warning to look beyond the veil and not judge others based on appearances.

After all, it’s the characters’ own assumptions and ignorance that turn themselves into punchlines. The scenes of dramatic irony make the audience not only laugh but also ponder why the characters get into such situations in the first place.

Through the comedic scenes of  Scheherazade and police officers, the audience is reminded that France currently has laws that ban people from wearing any sort of full-body niqab (where everything but the eyes is covered), burka or certain other types of headgear which cover the face.

And for some viewers, this is a fresh look at minorities and immigrants who are hated in many Western countries.

This film “unveils” stereotypes and separates fact from fiction on religious and societal issues that envelop the Western world.

Lastly, this film redeems Moati, who I never thought could be unseen as the sniff-fetish sister-lover from the other film.

In fact, not just Moati but all cast members play full and bright characters, and none portray their character stereotypically or offensively – a hard feat to accomplish in a comedy film.

The storyline is captivating and endearing without being cheesy. There are enough characters to keep the situation complex but not too many to not sympathize with them.

It’s impossible to think of any qualms with this movie save its 88-minute screen time. A few more halal jokes, a few more crazy car chases or run-ins with police officers, a few more statues of communist figures – anything to make it longer!

Nevertheless, it’s still the perfect movie to watch in this polarized political climate, both for the much-needed laughs and the optimistic message.

This is a true divine comedy. Step over, Dante.

—By Chardonnay Needler

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