'Grim' north shows sunny side in surprise French box office hit
Rory Mulholland heads north - in a cinematic sense - to explore the phenomenal success of Danny Boon's "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis".
A French film mocking national stereotypes about the country's north, usually depicted as a bleak, depressed land of beer-swilling brutes, looks set to be the movie of the year here after smashing box office records.
"Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" has become a surprise hit since its national
release last Wednesday and has already overtaken France's most costly film
ever, "Asterix at the Olympic Games," which came out in January.
The title means "Welcome to the Land of the Ch'tis," the nickname of the
northerners living in the post-industrial regions bordering Belgium and the
Films and novels about the area, which is a stark contrast from the glamour of Paris or the sunshine of the Riviera, often feature coal mining,
unemployment, rain or heavy drinking.
This grim social realist tradition can be traced back to the 19th century writer Emile Zola and his bleak mining novel "Germinal".
For many French, not much has changed since then, apart from the closure of
the coal mines. French films stereotype the Ch'tis as unemployed, suicidal and
alcoholic folk prone to violence and who speak an impenetrable patois.
Bruno Dumont's award-winning 1999 film "L'Humanite," for example, is the
story of a depressed cop probing the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in
a northern village.
But "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," written and directed by Danny Boon, a
"Ch'ti" himself who also stars in the movie, satirises the prejudices about
the area to reveal the warmth and big hearts of its people.
It tells the tale of a postal worker from the Mediterranean south of France
posted to the northern town of Bergues. The prospect fills him with dread but
the newcomer comes to see that the "Ch'tis" have hearts of gold and warmly
Boon said he wanted to dispel the popular French prejudices that depict his
home region, which statistics show has the country's highest rates of suicide,
obesity, cancer and heart disease, as one filled with "poverty, despair,
unemployment and coal mines."
"So I wanted to make a human comedy in which the main character will
discover the 'Ch'ti' culture and the humanity of the people of the north," he
"Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," made on a budget of 11 million euros (17
million dollars), had by Monday pulled in 3.5 million viewers since its
national release last Wednesday, distributors' figures showed.
That was the best ever opening for a French film.
It was far more than the 2.7 million viewers who in the first five days after its January release saw "Asterix at the Olympic Games," France's
biggest-budget movie ever at 78 million euros.
Pathe, the co-producer and distributor of "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," says it is aiming at a total of 12 million viewers and that the movie might even outdo the record 20 million for "Titanic."
The "Ch'ti" region, popular with Britons who cross the Channel to stock up
on cheap booze and cigarettes, gets few French tourists.
But Boon's movie could change that.
Bergues, the town where it is set, is at the centre of a Ch'ti craze.
From this weekend it will be offering tours that show the various locations
where the film was shot. The town's tourist office webiste, which previously
got around 10 hits a day, is now visited by thousands every day.
The nickname "Ch'ti" emerged during World War I when soldiers from the
region were teased by comrades about their prononciation of ch'est ti, ch'est
mi instead of c'est toi, c'est moi (it's you, it's me).