Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review - Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis

Who could have guessed that this mild, amiable and rather forgettable comedy would smash box-office records in its native France? When it was released in February of this year, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis became an instant smash among French cinemagoers, and has subsequently roared towards the decade-long box-office crown that James Cameron's Titanic has held in that country. Such a success can only be attributed to the way Dany Boon's film touches upon national stereotypes and prejudices. Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis is based around the perception that life in the south of France is nothing much gorgeous sunshine and happiness, while the north of the country is a cold and miserable place to be; but Boon, a native of Nord-Pas de Calais, wants to show us that things aren't as grim up north as many might think.

Such a scenario inevitably doesn't hold as much resonance for viewers outside of France, but Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis possesses a warm, Ealing-esque sense of humour that should translate for most audiences. Kad Merad plays disgruntled post office manager Philippe who, at the constant urging of his wife, has long been lobbying for a transfer to one of the much-coveted positions in the Côte d'Azur. Hoping to gain an edge on his competition, Philippe pretends to be wheelchair-bound in his interview, but when his ruse is uncovered he is punished severely: transferred to the reputedly inhospitable northern town of Bergues. Judging by the grim look on his wife's face, one would suspect that Philippe was being sent to the frontlines, never to return, when he says goodbye to her and his young son. On the motorway Philippe is stopped by a policeman for travelling too slowly, but when he hears about the driver's final destination he can only offer his commiserations and wave him on his lonely way.

Here's the thing, though – Bergues isn't that bad after all. After a rocky start in which Philippe finds himself knee-deep in misunderstandings and struggling to grasp the area's unique dialect, he soon finds his bearings and is given a warm welcome by his fellow post office employees. These include Antoine (Boon himself), who struggles to escape his overbearing mother's grip and is deeply infatuated with Annabelle (Anne Marivin), often drowning his sorrows on the job when she rebuffs his advances. In helping to straighten out various characters' little problems, Philippe becomes a contented member of the Bergues community, but for some reason he feels compelled to maintain an unhappy façade in front of his friends and family back home, regaling them with horror stories on his weekend visits. Inevitably, these tall tales come back to haunt him when his wife (Zoé Félix) decides it is her duty to stand by her man in this hellhole.

There are two or three hilarious sequences in Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis. One occurs early on when Philippe's attempt to play his non-existent disabled card descend into slapstick; another sees Philippe and Antoine cycling haphazardly around Bergues while growing increasingly inebriated; and the big set-piece in which the whole town try to convince Philippe's wife that life here is every bit as horrific as she's heard is very funny indeed. Aside from those instances, however, the comedy in this picture is of a determinedly gentle variety, and while it's far from unappealing it isn't quite amusing enough to distract from the film's laziness in other areas. The opening scenes seem to set us up for a classic farce, and I greatly enjoyed Philippe's first encounter with Antoine, in which both sexual and linguistic confusion come into play. The linguistic element of the film is particularly important. The Ch'ti of the title refers both to the natives of Bergues and their distinctive patois, where the letter "s" is pronounced "ch", and numerous words find their meaning completely warped. The film's subtitlers have obviously endeavoured to retain this core component of Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis' humour (office is confused with fish, for example), and the potentially parochial gags Boon likes to trade in come across remarkably well.

Boon's screenplay is extremely simplistic, however, and the stretches in between his occasional flashes of inspiration can irritate, with the writer allowing his plot to slacken badly before he resolves things in a too-neat fashion (the ending is dreadful). As a director he uses broad and unimaginative strokes, and he can't find any ways to make this standard fish-out-of-water tale feel fresh. Thankfully, the acting is very strong across the board, with Boon being a dab hand at playing the likable dolt (as he showed in Patrice Leconte's My Best Friend), and he is assisted by particularly strong work from both Merad and the heart-stoppingly beautiful Marivin. The ensemble's efforts ensure Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis is always a charming work, but this is nothing more than a passable comedy for which the French reaction has been nothing short of baffling. Great comedy can be universal, but something here has obviously been lost in translation.