There’s probably a lot to think about in Riad Sattouf’s dystopian satire Jacky in the Kingdom of Women. It’s filled with imagery loaded with cultural baggage; there are multiple ways to read just about everything in the movie. But even though it’s nearly impossible to watch without engaging in academic interpretation, it’s so damned charming and entertaining that really, you don’t need to.
Jacky takes place in the dystopian nation of Bubunne, a military dictatorship run by women where men wear burka-like shrouds and basically exist for breeding, looking pretty and mashing the semen-like foodstuff that flows from taps everywhere. Jacky himself is a sweet-natured guy with dreams of becoming Big Dummy, i.e. the husband to the Colonel (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The story follows Jacky’s dream of going to the nation’s biggest ball and being picked for marriage.
This is kind of a Cinderella story, but in a gender-swapped dystopia. As you might expect, circumstances change and become more complicated, but at its core, Jacky is as simple as its largely uneducated male characters.
I can’t stress enough how wonderfully weird this movie is. The nation of Bubunne is painted with great detail, and though the gender-swap imagery is completely on the nose, it’s kind of delightfully so. As the film progresses, the imagery gets escalatingly weird (and the gender politics more complicated), to the point that some sections feel torn from a Jodorowsky movie. The men all worship tiny Shetland ponies as deities; they constantly offer leashes from around their necks to passing women; they’re treated as sexual objects.
There’s nothing subtle about the gender-oriented statements being made here, but it’s a true pleasure to watch them being made. There’s a scene where a group of military women tie up and sexually humiliate Jacky, and even that somehow plays out as fun, despite the barbaric practices it’s referencing. It’s hard to say why - it’s still a scene of sexual humiliation. Is it because it’s satisfying seeing the tables turned? Because the image of female military officers aggressively jilling off at a prisoner is just so unexpected? Or because of the sheer gusto with which the scene is performed?
The best thing I can say about Jacky in the Kingdom of Women (and there are many good things I can say about it) is that it’s one of those rare films that emanates a feeling of pure joy. Vincent Lacoste’s lead performance is sweet and genuine, and the strange setting constantly delivers smile-inducing surprises. There’s a scene early on featuring a crowd of men giggling and hugging and dancing down the street that is so damned exuberant, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with the film then and there. And this in a film that Says Things! How often do we get those two characteristics in combination?
That a dystopian satire is the feel-good movie of the year is a weird concept to grapple with, but you’re just going to have to deal with it. Jacky in the Kingdom of Women is a weird, lovely little jewel amidst a sea of horror films at Fantastic Fest this year, and an easy recommendation for cinephiles, feminists and fetishists alike.