In France, the film Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis is already the most successful French-language movie in history, having grossed more than $125 million in its first six weeks of release, and will soon surpass James Cameron’s Titanic as the country’s all-time box-office champ. When that happens, more than a third of France’s roughly 60 million population will have purchased a ticket to director and star Dany Boon’s modestly budgeted culture-clash comedy about a disgraced postal supervisor (Kad Merad) who finds himself transferred from sunny Cassis to the bleak, linguistically challenged French-Belgian border region of Nord-Pas de Calais.
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Boon (left) and co-star Kad Merad ride to the top of the French box office.
“It’s unbelievable, because there is no big boat, no DiCaprio,” said Boon, best known in America for his role as the chatterbox taxi driver “hired” to be the friend of a cold-hearted businessman in Patrice Leconte’s My Best Friend, last week by phone from Paris.
Now, Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis is coming to America — sort of. Following the conventional wisdom that popular French hits don’t work at the American box office, except as remakes, a Hollywood version of Boon’s film is already in development at the Weinstein Co., while the original remains without a U.S. distribution deal. But Los Angeles moviegoers who want to know what all the fuss is about can see Bienvenue Chex les Ch’tis this week during the City of Lights, City of Angels French-film festival, where it will receive its North American premiere.
Boon’s second film as director following 2006’s La Maison du Bonheur (an homage of sorts to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House), Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis takes much of its humor from the verbally dexterous wordplay between Merad’s hapless transplant, Philippe Abrams, and his new neighbors in the town of Bergues, all of whom speak the northern French dialect known officially as Picard but informally as “chtimi” or “ch’ti.” Consisting of many familiar French words and phrases, albeit given their own unique pronunciation (including a habit of turning every “s” sound into a “sh” sound), the language can be baffling to the untrained ear, as Philippe discovers during his first meeting with Bergues’ senior postal carrier, Antoine Bailleul (played by Boon). Upon asking why the apartment he has been let contains no furniture, Philippe is perplexed to hear Antoine reply that the previous postal inspector took the furniture for “ses chiens” (in English, “his dogs”), until he realizes that “ses chiens” is merely ch’ti for “ses siens” (“his family”). (In the film’s English subtitles, which do a heroic — if not always equally funny — job of finding equivalents for these uniquely French homophones, the substituted expressions are “his fish” and “his office.”)
We are firmly in Abbott and Costello territory here, and also in the footsteps of the late French comedian Raymond Devos, who was celebrated for his tongue-twisting puns and double-entendres and whom Boon refers to as his “artistic father.” Yet, for all the comic mileage Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis earns at the expense of its ch’ti-speaking characters, the film is less a putdown of Northern provincialism than it is a bighearted valentine to the region from one of its native sons. “When I wrote the script, it was really important to me not to be hard on my people,” says Boon, who was born in Nord-Pas de Calais, grew up speaking ch’ti, and adapted Bienvenue (with co-writers Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier) from his own ch’ti-language stage show. The solution, Boon realized, was to invoke all of the common southern French stereotypes about the North — bitter cold, rampant alcoholism, backward country folk — only to then turn them inside out.
“You know, in France, in the movie business, every time there is a comedy, they want to shoot it in the South of France, near the Riviera,” Boon says. “And when there is a drama, they go to my region. To make people cry, you have to go to my region. So it’s really hard for the vacation business. I have a joke in my show where I say, ‘Please come to the North for vacation. Please come in July — you’ll see, it will be quiet. There is nobody. Even we aren’t there.’ When I’m onstage for my show in France, every time I say I’m from the North, people say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ ”
In the film, Philippe quickly discovers that life in Bergues isn’t nearly so bad as he imagined. But certain that his wife and friends back home will never believe him, he spins fanciful stories of drunken coal miners and cholera outbreaks until, in the movie’s pièce de résistance, an impromptu visit from Philippe’s wife spurs Antoine and the other locals to play-act the nightmarish Bergues of Philippe’s imagination.
If all of this sounds extremely local, Boon already has an idea of how the movie’s scenario might be adapted for an American audience. “I think the best thing to do is to have a guy from New York, who makes a big mistake and has to go to a little town in Texas,” he says. “Everywhere in the world, we all know about cowboys and Western movies. And I think it could be really funny, when the guy’s wife comes to visit, to have a little Western town, like in the Old West. Even the way it would be filmed would be like in a Sergio Leone movie. That could be really funny.”
In the meantime, Boon — or at least his mother, the “wonderful ch’ti” to whom the film is dedicated — isn’t letting his newfound superstardom go to his head. “I called to say, ‘Mom, it’s unbelievable, we are number one at the box office. The movie is going to be a huge, huge success. Can you believe it?’ And after a little silence, she said, ‘Don’t buy a new car.’ ”