French-language film has earned $2 million

MONTREAL — An offbeat fantasy film featuring a giant flying bull, a woman who’s been pregnant for 20 years and the proverbial village idiot has almost single-handedly turned around the fortunes of Franco-Canuck cinema.

“Babine” was the surprise hit of the holiday season in Quebec and is still going strong six weeks into its run in French Canada. The French-language film from hotshot thesp-turned-helmer Luc Picard has so far rung-up C$2.4 million ($2 million) at the box office, making it the second-highest-grossing Quebecois film of the past 12 months. (The top-grosser was “Cruising Bar 2,” a low-IQ comedy sequel that grossed $3 million last summer.)

Last year was not a blockbuster year for homegrown Quebec film, with Franco Canadian pics garnering only 10% of ticket sales in the local province (where most French-speaking Canadians live). Just three years ago, local films nabbed a record 18 percent of the Quebec box office.

Given the slump, local industryites were particularly pumped to see “Babine” do so well. Better yet, it is a highly original pic.

“It proves that we should be audacious here in Quebec,” says Simon Beaudry, president of Montreal-based box office tracking firm Cineac. “I’ve always believed that originality is the way to save Quebecois cinema. You can’t beat Hollywood with B-rate Hollywood copies.”

“Babine” is based on a live show by Fred Pellerin, a Quebec storyteller — or “conteur,” as they say here — who sells out theaters across French Canada with a live act that consists of this odd fellow standing or sitting onstage telling tall tales about his home village of St. Elie de Caxton just northeast of Montreal. He spins yarns of magical realism and that’s exactly what “Babine” is all about.

It’s the story of a guy, Babine, who’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic and, given that his mother is the village witch, he tends to be blamed for all that goes wrong in the small community. When the local church burns down and the old priest dies in the fire, all hell breaks loose — with a wild story that doubles as a fairly trenchant critique of how the Catholic Church ruled Quebec with an iron fist — and a little fire and brimstone — until fairly recently.

Montreal distributor Alliance Films initiated the project, convincing Pellerin to write a screenplay, then hooking him up with producers Cite-Amerique and director Picard (who also stars in the pic).

“It’s a real feel-good film, and in the current economic climate, that’s perfect,” says Patrick Roy, who runs Alliance’s Quebec operations.

And while it was far from a record year at the box office for Quebecois film, the sectors continues to fare far better than English-Canadian cinema. Eight of the top-10 homegrown ticket-sellers of 2008 were made-in-Quebec productions.

The one silver lining for the English film community was that the No. 1 spot for a Canuck film was held down by an English-Canadian pic, WWI romantic drama “Passchendaele,” which sold $3.5 million worth of tickets.

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