Dir: Merzak Allouache. France. 105mins

After nearly a decade of supporting roles in mostly indifferent French commercial pictures, Casablanca-born stand-up comic Gad Elmaleh at last makes his screen breakthrough in this serviceable self-devised screen vehicle. He plays a young Algerian trying to cope with life in Paris as an illegal immigrant and drag queen. Released by Warner Bros in 400 theatres last month, this Christian Fechner production is a runaway success that has recorded some three million admissions in only three weeks. Most likely to remain a phenomenon in French-speaking territories due to its ethnic humour based on accents and malapropisms, the film may connect further afield in specialised gay film festivals and venues but is cinematically not distinguished enough to reach the foreign-language art house circuits.

Within the last 10 years, the 32-year-old Moroccan Jewish Elmaleh has evolved as one of the best and funniest talents on France's rich theatrical comedy circuit. One of the character jewels in the crown of his increasingly successful one-man-shows is Chouchou (pronounced: Shoo-Shoo), a hilariously dreamy-eyed Algerian transvestite who Elmaleh based on a real-life model working the Pigalle night club beat.

Working with veteran Algerian film-maker Allouache (under whose aegis Elmaleh made his screen debut in the 1995 comedy Salut, Cousin!), Elmaleh has tried to flesh out the character's adventures for a realistic full-length film, but, predictably, the results more resemble a series of casually-linked sketches without any real narrative dynamics. It is all the more a shame because the supporting players (notably Brasseur, Zem and Frot) are promising, but are never allowed the chance to develop dramatically and psychologically).

But there is Elmaleh as Chouchou and he/she is a delight. Far from the facile, often vulgar histrionics of the Cage Aux Folles franchise and the 1996 French hit comedy What a Drag! (Pedale Douce), Elmaleh's portrayal is a more subtle and genuinely affectionate portrait of a foolishly romantic denizen of the Pigalle-Place Clichy night-club scene. A master of verbal humour and physical transformations, Elmaleh gives his hero/heroine a true screen presence that is very likely to bloom into a recurring screen personage.

We first meet Chouchou as Choukri, an illegal young Algerian immigrant who steps off the train in Paris dressed in a Chilean poncho and cap (he thinks integration will be easier if he claims to be a Latin American political refugee!). He is given room and board by the open-minded local parish priest (Brasseur) who soon finds him off-the-books employment as assistant and cleaning "woman" to a young Freudian psychotherapist (Frot).

With his work and living problems temporarily settled, Chouchou is free to live his night-life waitressing at a transvestite club off Place Clichy where his nephew (Elmaleh's real-life brother Arie) is one of the main attractions. Romance blooms when he meets a well-heeled habitue (Chabat, wasted in a barely sketched out part). The only obstacle on Chouchou's path to happiness is a psychopathic police detective (Boucher), a former patient of Frot's, who, in a poorly developed subplot, tries to get Chouchou deported. Needless to say, he fails and the story ends with a white wedding.

Prod cos: Films Christian Fechner/France 2 Television/K2A Productions
Int'l dist: Roissy Films
Exec prod: Christian Fechner
Prod: Herve Truffaut
Scr: Gad Elmaleh, Allouache
Cinematography... Laurent Machuel
Art dir: Sylvie Deldon
Sound: Paul Laine, Gerard Rousseau
Costumes: Fabienne Katany, Ricardo Martinez-Paz
Ed: Sylvie Gadmer
Music: Germinal Tenas, Gilles Tinayre
Cast: Gad Elmaleh, Alain Chabat, Claude Brasseur, Roschdy Zem, Catherine Frot, Stephane Boucher, Micheline Presle, Jacques Sereys, Arie Elmaleh