'Some Like It Veiled' ('Cherchez la femme'): Film Review

Courtesy of Mars Distribution
Felix Moati in 'Some Like It Veiled'
Hijab ha ha.

Writer-director Sou Abadi ('SOS Tehran') turns a controversial social issue into a broad French comedy.

As its title suggests, Some Like It Veiled — or Cherchez la femme in French — takes the cross-dressing conceit of the Billy Wilder classic and updates it to the age of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s either a brilliant idea or a recipe for disaster, and in the hands of writer-director Sou Abadi, the film falls somewhere in between. Neither ridiculous nor particularly hilarious, it tackles a hot-button subject (burqas have been publicly banned in France since 2011) with enough caution to avoid seeming too offensive, professing in the end that love and family will always beat out religion. 

Rising talent Felix Moati (Irreplaceable) stars as Armand, the bookish son of Iranian immigrants who’s completely smitten by Leila (pop star Camelia Jordana), an Arab girl from the banlieue enrolled with Armand in Paris’ prestigious Sciences Po university. The two are set to spend a few months in New York interning at the United Nations, but those plans quickly unravel when Leila’s brother, Mahmoud (William Lebghil), returns from an extended trip to the Middle East as a full-blown Islamist replete with beard, prayer beads and a desire to quell his sister’s profane Western ways.

Banned from seeing Leila, who has been sequestered in the apartment along with younger brother, Sinna (Carl Malapa), Armand hatches the idea to disguise himself in a burqa so he can keep coming over to visit. (Leila's parents are conveniently deceased, leaving Mahmoud the elder in charge.) Plenty of hijinks ensue, with Armand forced to take on a high-pitched voice and study the Koran in order to convince everyone he’s Leila’s devout Muslim tutor. In fact, his plan works so well that the desperate Mahmoud winds up falling for Armand’s hijab-wearing alter ego.

Structured like a typical French farce, with the requisite quid pro quos and overcooked slapstick, Veiled handles its topical scenario with relative care, revealing the emotional undercurrents that drive Mahmoud to fundamentalist excess and his sister to liberate herself from his clutches. There’s never any question as to where the film’s allegiances lie, yet while it portrays French Islamists — including Mahmoud’s thuggish friends from the hood, all of whom have radicalized as well — as a bunch of knuckleheads, it also shows that, deep down, they are mostly good-natured people.   

Abadi (SOS Tehran), who was born in Iran but moved to France when she was 15, has the lessons of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution behind her to dispel any notion that extreme Islam can be a good thing for democracy and especially, women. She conveys this not only through Leila’s struggle to obtain freedom from her domineering brother, but also through Armand’s exiled Iranian mother (Franco-Algerian actress Anne Alvaro) who, in yet another quid pro quo, believes for a while that her son has actually converted — something that nearly gives her a heart attack.

Subtlety has rarely been the forte of mainstream French comedies, and while some of the gags here definitely seem trite (Armand gets his burqa caught in a car door; Armand skateboards in his burqa…all that’s missing is Armand on the beach in a burkini) the fact that Abadi depicts her characters with a few shades of humanity prevents her movie from becoming a one-joke affair catering exclusively to France’s secular majority. On the other hand, the director doesn’t make a ton of effort to show why banlieue boys like Mahmoud and his buddies turn to fundamentalism in a country they feel has cast them aside, even if social issues are mentioned a few times early on.

Moati, who’s sort of a paler Gallic version of Jesse Eisenberg, does what he can in a role that asks us to suspend our disbelief for way too long while everyone fails to see through his rather implausible disguise. And although Armand is ostensibly the centerpiece of the story, Lebghil (Love at First Fight) is given much more to work with as the troubled and confused Mahmoud. He ultimately comes across as the film’s most endearing character: a lonely working-class kid who embraces extreme Islam, while all he really needs is some extreme TLC.

Production companies: The Film, France 2 Cinema, Mars Films
Cast: Felix Moati, Camelia Jordana, William Lebghil, Anne Alvaro, Carl Malapa
Director-screenwriter: Sou Abadi
Producer: Michael Gentile
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Denis Gautelier
Costume designer: Justine Pearce
Music: Jerome Rebotier
Editor: Virginie Bruant
Casting: Aurelie Guichard
Sales: Films Distribution

In French, Arabic
88 minutes