Miss, M. 107 minutes. 3 Stars
Beauty pageants demand so much more of contestants than they used to. Parading around in bikinis and glittering gowns used to be the trick, but now you need to show that you excel in other ways like practising karate, playing violin, being an engineer and helping the world go green. Whether this makes a difference to the outcome is, of course, up for debate.
I had the impression that the beauty business was on the wane, but no. Contestants in our post-feminist world just have to demonstrate that they are just as amazing inside as out.
Miss, a light-hearted French comedy with serious intent, is about a young man who, rejecting cisgender and feeling neither male nor female, decides he wants to enter the Miss France beauty pageant by posing as a female. Written and directed by French-Portuguese filmmaker Ruben Alves, it posits a new twist for these blended times.
The concept is a big step away from Alves' pleasant but unremarkable first feature, The Gilded Cage, about a couple of guest workers who decide to return home to Portugal after many decades in Paris. Miss, a lot trickier to deliver, succeeds but only up to a point. Alves co-wrote the screenplay with Elodie Namer and Cecilia Rouaud.
Lead character Alex (Alexandre Wetter) suddenly decides to make good a childhood dream he articulated in front of his class at nine years of age. In one of those "what do you want to be when you grow up?" sessions, he said he wanted to become Miss France.
In the film's jumbled early stages, the narrative tries to explain how a chance meeting with an old friend who has become a champion boxer, demonstrates to Alex that he can be whatever he wants to be. Always a good message.
Alex is a young man who has lost his way, but for his adopted family of friends. This happy band of outsiders includes Lola played by Thibault Montalembert from the TV series Call My Agent, almost unrecognisable as an aging transvestite. His performance was a welcome reminder of the evergreen French comedy, La Cage Aux Folles.
Crucially, the androgynous, smooth-skinned Wetter absolutely looks the part as Alex. With the auburn hair looped up, eyelashes attached and make-up applied, there's even a hint of Claudia Cardinale.
Wetter has become well known in France since he first modelled clothes for Jean Paul Gaultier. Women's fashions, of course.
Alex's family of friends gather round and offer their support for his crazy quest. Advice is sought from Marraine (Amanda Lear) on how to feminise for the contest, and the older woman doesn't mince her words. So, you want to be a woman? It won't be easy. Alex will need to be by turns pure and sexy, rebellious and submissive. And disguise those male attributes, wear a corset even while in bed, and high heels rather than flats to conceal the size of his feet.
So, the ideal feminine can be tall, but she must have small feet. Even foot size matters, apparently.
Against the odds, Alex manages to win the title Miss Ile-de-France and become a beauty pageant finalist. Early in the piece, after a male host behaves inappropriately towards him, he looks like he will be an advocate for women's rights in the beauty business, but this doesn't develop and Alex remains rather doe-eyed and passive for the duration.
On the other hand, both Lola and the landlady and mother-figure, Yolande (a feisty Isabelle Nanty), make up for this blandness, with some of the best lines about show poodles. Pascale Arbillot is also memorable as Amanda, the tough pageant manager who has to wrangle the Miss France contestants and turn them into television material.
During contestant interviews, one girl claims she has an IQ of 170, can speak four languages, and has a blog devoted to humanitarian work. Miss PACA, that is Miss Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, is played by another well-known face from Call My Agent, Stefi Celma.
Clearly, Alex is out of his depth, but important developments are under way.
Before getting cross about beauty pageants and whether or not they are demeaning, we can see that Miss isn't just about gender issues and institutionalised sexism towards women. There's a takeaway message in this well-meaning comedy that works for everyone.