Popular farceur, playwright and stand-up comic Dany Boon wraps a love letter to his native region of northern France in “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis,” a slickly helmed heartwarmer that’s done boffo Gallic biz. Uncomplicated comedy of manners, centered on a Provencal postal worker who’s exiled to the “grim” north where the natives speak an incomprehensible dialect, plays on French regional prejudices and linguistic tropes but has a genuine charm that’s easily accessible for offshore auds. Smart marketing and good reviews could make this fish-out-of-water comedy also work in a modest way beyond Gaul.
Initially released Feb. 20 in the titular Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, and a week later throughout the whole country, pic set an all-time B.O. record for a French movie, with 4.4 million admissions from almost 800 screens in its first week nationwide. It’s so far grossed more than $80 million to date, with legs still to go.
Philippe Abrams (balding French-Algerian comic Kad Merad) is a post office manager in picturesque Salon-de-Provence who, to please his depressed wife Julie (Zoe Felix), tries to scam his superiors into transferring him a bit farther south to the Cote d’Azur. When his stunt goes horribly wrong, Philippe is told by his immediate superior (Stephane Freiss) that he’s to be sent up north for two years as punishment.
Philippe’s destination is the town of Bergues — just south of Dunkirk, in the area between Belgium and the English Channel — where the people speak a language dubbed “Ch’ti,” aka Picard, that’s a mixture of Latin, French and Flemish. Raised to believe the region is the French Siberia, Philippe, wrapped in Arctic clothing, bids a tearful goodbye to his wife and young son.
Shot in a light, breezy style, with even an animated map charting Philippe’s journey north, the opening reels squeeze the most jokes possible out of southern prejudices while keeping the story moving with a perky, upbeat score. The minute Philippe hits Ch’ti country, a massive downpour hits and he almost runs over a drunk, who turns out to be Antoine Bailleul (Boon), one of his future employees at the local post office.
Script quickly broadens its one-joke premise by introducing a small number of characters from Philippe’s staff, including the pretty Annabelle (Anne Marivin, charming). Despite some early setbacks — the dialect, in particular, is a minefield of misunderstandings — Philippe soon finds the burgers aren’t anything like their stereotypes and starts to warm to life there.
Though the story develops some minor subplots, such as Antoine’s secret love for Annabelle, pic starts to dip at the hour mark as the basic idea wears thin. It’s here that the filmmakers spring their cleverest idea, as Philippe panics when Julie decides to move up and live with him. The locals’ solution to Philippe’s marital quandary results in a sequence that is pure Ealing comedy in its ingenuity, preparing the ground for a simple, inclusive finale.
As the heart and soul of the movie, Merad is aces, mingling confusion, officiousness and simple warmth — best seen in a joyous sequence where he gets royally drunk while accompanying Antoine on the latter’s postal round. Ensemble playing is easy and natural, though Boon’s tendency to mug may not click with all auds.
Still, helming by the multi-hyphenate (who previously directed the bumpier 2006 comedy “Dream House”) is smooth, and production values, under seasoned Pathe producers Claude Berri and Jerome Seydoux, are classy at all levels, creating a de facto universe of its own within the real-life town of Bergues.
Apart from a handful of sequences, subtitling should not present any major problems, as most of the dialogue is in French with only a smattering of Ch’ti, and any heavy use of dialect is always translated for Philippe’s convenience. Film is dedicated to Boon’s mother, Daniele, “une Ch’tie merveilleuse.”