Director: Dany Boon
Screenplay: Dany Boon, Alexandre Charlot, Franck Manier
Actor-writer-director Dany Boon’s gentle comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis ruled the French box-office in 2008. I’m not just talking about it being a hit, I’m talking about it being a monster hit in France, on par with monster hits like Titanic or The Dark Knight or the Lord of the Rings films. As a matter of fact, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis has the distinction of being the most successful French film in France of all time. Not bad at all considering that the film was made on the relatively tiny budget of 11 million euros.
Bievenue chez les Ch’tis’ success lies in its ability to follow a simple yet universally understood and experienced phenomenon: the regional bias. Kad Merad is Phillipe Abrams, a rather weasly postal official whose desperation to gain a work transfer to one of southern France’s gorgeous cities causes him to pretend that he’s handicapped (a guaranteed advantage for such promotions). It isn’t long before Phillipe is found out by the powers that be within the Postal Service. As punishment, he’s transferred to the dreaded north of France: the Nord-Pas de Calais region, to the town Bergues, for a minimum of two years. Phillipe timidly reveals this news to his wife Julie (Zoé Félix) and is at once chewed out something fierce. The Nord-Pas de Calais, it seems, is worse than hell itself, with temperatures dropping to inhumane levels, populated by an army of beer swilling, troglodytic rubes. She absolutely refuses to move to such a place and Phillipe is left with no other alternative than to leave Julie and their young son Raphaël behind, returning home for weekend visits.
Upon arrival in Bergues, Phillipe meets Antoine (Dany Boon), a local postal worker who introduces him to the rest of the staff at the town’s tiny post office. Phillipe is less than thrilled by any of this and makes little to no initial effort to make the best of his new position. But as time passes, Phillipe begins to see things in a new light – one which slowly whittles away his preconceived notions about the places and people that he doesn’t know.
There are moments in Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis when it all feels a little melodramatic. The build up to Phillipe leaving for Bergues, for example, is somewhat over the top, going out of its way to convince us that this silly man’s banishment to the north is nothing short of a death sentence. Still, there’s a reason for this sort of melodrama and rather than have it feel as though we’re being hit over the head by the notion of how horrid Bergues is meant to be, Boon seems to be taking the piss out of those who would so disdainfully condemn a place which they’ve never bothered to visit. It’s melodrama at the expense of melodrama, if you will.
Bievenue chez les Ch’tis isn’t high art, but it doesn’t try to be, either. It’s a film that’s obviously been able to resonate with audiences by pointing out the regional stereotyping and foolishness we’re all guilty of, and by laughing at the sheer silliness of it all. Speaking as someone who originally comes from a place that is treated with equal disdain as was Bergues, I can honestly say that it’s entirely pleasing seeing ill-informed, preconceived notions dashed. For what it’s worth, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis relays the message loud and clear: it isn’t where you come from that makes you who you are, but who you are that makes you who are, and that happiness can be found wherever you want it to be.