PARIS — Pedro Almodóvar once said that he writes with a painting of his mother behind him. Dany Boon’s “La Ch’tite Famille” is too much of an ensemble piece to be all about his mother. But it draws on the same bedrock relationship for much of its emotions, especially in its early stretches, plus a sense, which plays out over the film and is espoused by Boon in an early interview on “La Ch’Tite Famille,” of the importance, however famous one becomes, of remaining grounded in life.
The mother-son relationship, and the emotions it sparks in the film, is just one of the elements which sets “La Ch’Tite Famille” apart from Boon’s historic 2008 “Welcome to the Sticks.”
“Welcome” ended up making a mid two-figure dollar million box office outside France. Marking its world market debut at the UniFrance Rendez-Vous, “La Ch’Tite Famille” has already scored major territories deals, especially in territories where “Welcome” performed strongly. Concorde has closed on “La Ch’tite Famille” in Germany and Austria, the biggest overseas market for the original, Pathé, Boon’s longtime co-producer and sales agent, has also closed Italy (RAI) and, reportedly after receiving multiple bids, Spain (Tripictures). It has also pre-sold to Belgium and Luxembourg (Alternative), where “La Ch’tite Famille” an be expected to make mighty numbers, Poland (KinoSwiat). Canada (AZ Film) and China (Fundamental). Paradiso has acquired the Netherlands, Feelgood Greece, Ads Hungary and Bulgaria/Romania, and Empire the Middle East.
If ever Hollywood wanted a reminder of the building power of local cinema, it received it 10 years ago almost to the day when “Welcome to the Sticks,” the second feature of the French stand-up comic turned film director and actor, burst onto France, selling 20.3 million tickets, after “Titanic” the second biggest audience of any film in France since 1945. Gross box office – $193.8 million – remains the highest for any movie ever in France.
World premiering Tuesday, produced by Pathé and Boon’s label, “The Ch’tite Famille” returns Boon to the same Ch’ti universe of “Welcome”: Ch’tis, French northerners near to the Belgian border who speak with a near impenetrable accent, slushing the words – an early scene had buyers in stitches at the UniFrance Rendez-Vous – and are written off by Paris snobs as hillbillies.
But this time round, rather than a post worker being relocated in shame from sunny southern France to the North, embarking on the journey as if he were being sent to the North Pole, “La Ch’tite Famille” is mostly set in a lovingly shot Paris. Boon plays Valentin, the male member of a Paris uber-chic interior designer IT couple who is knocked over by a car and reverts, to his (supposedly) uncouth Deep North Ch’ti childhood-self, just as he’s negotiating a multi-million deal with Sofitel hotel chain. And it’s his Ch’ti family, still loving mother, brother who’s had a problem with booze, that makes a journey, from the North to Paris, when his mother determines to celebrate her 80th birthday with her two sons, despite the fact that Valentin has disowned his origins, telling Paris Match that he’s an orphan. “Nobody knows anything,” William Goldman said famously about the movie business. From the frequent guffaws greeting a Friday screening at the UniFrance Paris Rendez-Vous, “La Ch’t¡te Famille,” is the clearest contender to top France’s 2018 B.O., Hollywood competition notwithstanding. On tour promoting “La Ch’tite Famille,” Dany Boon talked to Variety right after the UniFrance Rendez-Vous screening:
The second “Ch’ti” film comes exactly 10 years after the first? Was it always planned?
I never said I wanted to do a second Ch’ti film 10 years later, because actually the first draft I wrote of the ”La ch’tite famille” was around 2010. I wanted to do another film about the family relationship between a son and his mother, but “Welcome” was so huge, and I was still traveling with the movie all over the world, so I figured it was too soon to do it. I put that screenplay in a drawer, then I decided to do something else. Then in 2014 I wrote a second draft, but we stopped just before going into pre-production because I thought it was still too soon. The story was there, but I still wasn’t that happy with it, something was missing. Then last year when I was doing “R.A.I.D.” I had a few ideas that weren’t in the previous draft and realized it had been 10 years since the original. My first thought was: “Wow, time flies,” but then: “It’s a good moment to do this.”
This isn’t a prequel, or a sequel. Though it deals with the Ch’ti world of “Welcome to the Sticks,” it’s in many ways a different film….
Totally. The idea came from my mother. I’m from a poor neighborhood and my childhood was happy but we were certainly broke. Now I’m famous and successful but my mother still sees me as the boy I was. For example, I called her the night of the release of “Welcome” and I told her it’s gonna be the biggest film ever in France. She didn’t answer right away, there was a silence, then she said: “Please don’t buy a new car.” That was her reaction to me having a huge success. When I did, when I did “Superchondriac,” I gave her postcards with the poster of the movie on them. She went to the flea market to hand out the postcards, saying: “Go see my son’s movie.” I told her that she didn’t need to go to the market to give out post-cards, that the movie is gonna do well, and she told me: “Don’t be a braggart.” She is still like that, she just wants me to be polite, a good son and a nice person who worries about others. I love that because you feel more grounded. That was the beginning of the idea when I started writing, that we still, even over the years, whatever we do, wherever we go, we are still the little kids of our parents.
That mother-son relationship gives the film a lot of its emotional depth.
I wanted to put something a bit more emotional in this film. I knew that doing a new “Ch’tite” movie was a big challenge because the audience would be excited about it. But I wanted them leaving the cinema happier than they came in. The idea was to give something more personal and very moving between the funny scenes, and to touch something deeper. It gives to the comedy a deeper sense of humanity.
Valentin’s mother isn’t the only woman character in the film…
I wanted to write good parts for the women in the movie. The first draft was very chic and neat, with Constance. Valentin’s wife, being really surprised and shocked the first time she hears her husband talk “Ch’ti.”. But I worked on the character: I didn’t want her to become caricature. She is in love, so wants to talk like him: For her, it’s a proof of her love.
The mother, the first time she sees her son in 20 years, is not pissed or angry, she is just very moved and starts to cry. She forgives him. It’s a very deep moment at the beginning, balancing comedy and emotional moments within scenes.
After now six features, how do you think you’ve evolved as a film director?
I’m less afraid today than before to go deeper into feelings, to create drama moments, moving moments. I feel more confident. If I have to disagree with one of my actors, I’m okay with that. Also, I give more of myself in the stories. “La Ch’Tite Famille” is partly my story because before doing stand-up comedy then films, I graduated from art school. In “La Ch’tite Famille,” I designed most of the furniture. I drew the chair with only the three legs. It was great fun to design really uncomfortable furniture and then build it.
There are scenes in the film which seem especially to target international audiences: The shots of Paris, the physical comedy. Was “La Ch’tite Famille” made with a sense of its possible international appeal?
Showing how beautiful Paris is to audiences outside France is very important to me. Paris is one of the most beautiful towns in the world. Even with the Ch’ti jokes, I work with subtitler to find the best way to translate the jokes. The physical comedy: The bathroom scene is a tribute Jacques Tati, I was hugely glad that Pierre Richard loved the screenplay and played my father. I was a huge fan. The first day when he was on set, I was telling all my crew: “Here is Pierre, can you believe it?’ I even said to him: “Can you believe it! You’re Pierre Richard, that’s crazy!” I was so excited also to give him some physical comedy too, which isn0t just for international and France but also for children. When you do comedy ,it’s important not to forget that we used to do silent movies, and to think about younger audiences.