Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Regional Rehabilitation

A reader has asked me to comment on the film Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, which is currently breaking box-office records in France. I had thought of doing so earlier but was held back by a very simple consideration: I haven't seen the film. Of course, a critic for Esquire recently reviewed an album he hadn't heard (it hadn't been released at the time his review appeared), but various commentators treated this bit of critical impudence as an ethical lapse. I will therefore refrain from aesthetic judgment and discuss the film solely as un phénomène de société, which it certainly is, if only by virtue of having sold 5 million tickets in its first week of release. It is now closing in on La Grande vadrouille, a comedy of the Occupation, which has been the champion of French films on French territory since 1966 (with more than 17 million theater tickets sold; it is currently playing on TV5, so American subscribers can see it).

The title, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, may require a word of explanation for many outside of France. Les Ch'tis are the inhabitants of the northwestern corner of France, of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. They speak a dialect known as ch'timi, related to picard and wallon. I first encountered the Ch'tis and ch'timi when I gave a lecture at the University of Amiens. At the dinner afterwards, a graduate student who had grown up in the region regaled me with local lore and tales of the prowess of les Ch'tis. I never expected to see them featured in a film, however.

The region was of course at one time an industrial and mining stronghold, but like many former industrial regions it has seen better days. There is a tendency in France to mock the inhabitants of the area in terms similar to those sometimes applied to inhabitants of the American South: they are slow, it is said; their speech is strange; they remain wedded to a primitive world.

Time Magazine puts it this way:

When Americans want an iconic image of poverty, joblessness, alcoholism, and despair, they look to trailer parks. The rough French equivalent is the Nord Pas de Calais department, a swath of hardscrabble land that makes up about a third of France's northern border. While the neighboring Belgians remain the favorite butt of French jokes about simpletons, France has traditionally considered its indigenous northerners, known as Ch'ti, too miserable to even joke about.

Dany Boon, stand-up comic, actor, and filmmaker, grew up in the region and decided to make a film to puncture these myths. Is it significant that Boon's name mimics that of another backwoodsman (Daniel Boone), who also traded on a myth of backwardness to make his fortune in such sophisticated precincts as Washington, D.C.? Be that as it may, Boon is a gifted comedian, and American filmgoers may have appreciated his sensitive portrayal of a man enlisted by a ruthless and unsurprisingly friendless antiquaire to win a bet with a colleague in My Best Friend (2006). You can get a bit of the flavor of the new film from this trailer. The plot involves a postal worker who wants a post on the Côte d'Azur but is rewarded instead with a transfer to a desolate northern town. There, in a series of comic encounters, he discovers, I am told, the humanity of the Ch'tis beneath their bumpkinish ways.

This is a difficult genre of humor to pull off. Think of the portrayal of Clevis the Slack-Jawed Yokel in The Simpsons, which is more often cruel than affectionate. But by most of the accounts that I have seen (e.g., this one and this one), Boon succeeds.

Of course humor doesn't translate easily, and dialectal humor probably doesn't translate at all. Americans have a hard enough time understanding French tastes in comedy. The "Jerry Lewis problem" has long divided these two peoples perhaps more deeply than the "Charles de Gaulle problem." Jacques Tati? Louis de Funès? These were acquired tastes of American Francophiles in my youth, almost an affectation, like smoking Gauloises or wearing a beret in Manhattan. I never did acquire them, not really. French low comedy can be very low indeed (think of Les Bronzés). To judge by the trailer and various scenes excerpted on TV, the Boon film seems to continue the tradition.

Perhaps the remarkable response it has elicited should be put down to a reaction against the bling-bling president. Here, instead of tawdry luxury, we have the humblest of Frenchmen going about their daily business in the least lovely quarter of France. Americans may proudly announce that they've just returned from a week in Cannes or the Pyrenees, but does anyone ever say "I'm just back from Lille--you really must go there!"? I think not. But the Lillois and their compatriots now have Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis as compensation. As comic foils, they will soon outstrip the hapless Germans of La Grande vadrouille. That's something, I guess. But no doubt some readers have seen the film. Please let us know what you think of it, and how you explain its success.

Bernard Girard answers the call here.


Anonymous said...

Ce n’est pas le film du siècle mais on rit franchement, ce qui fait du bien en ces temps de morosité et de baisse du pouvoir d’achat.

Puis la gentillesse et l’amitié sont des valeurs sûres ! En outre c’est un film intergénérationnel, mon fils l’a déjà vu deux fois et ma mère a adoré !

Frédérique DUPUY

Steven Rendall said...

The humor is not so low as some of French low comedy, and it is not in the least mean-spirited (as is that of another French favorite, "Le Diner de cons"). However, having spent a year in Lille long ago (1961-62) I must say that the first part of the film (especially the deluge that hits the protagonist's windshield as he crosses in to Nord/Pas de Calais) corresponds more to my memories of the area than does the sunny, free-wheeling, good-humored atmosphere of the rest . . . I remember getting off the train in Arras (about 50 k. south of Lille) on my way to Paris, and having people there already pity me because I lived in the terrible north. "Ah, Lille," they said, "c'est triste dans le Nord."