A new cult film has been born. Already, 12 million* spectators have seen Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks), which was released on February 27. Like the three Bronzés films or La Vie Est un Long Fleuve Tranquille, the hugely popular Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis is one of those iconic films destined to enter the French collective consciousness.
And, like those other cultural-phenomenon films (except for the third in the Bronzés series, which was just plain garbage), Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis turns out to be a mildly amusing movie that relies on broad, politically incorrect stereotypes to get laughs, a trick that always seems to work in France. In La Vie Est un Long Fleuve Tranquille, the best of the bunch, which also took place in the north of France, it was rich vs. poor. In Les Bronzés and its sequels it was a collection of stereotypes on holiday – the Don Juan, the loser who can’t get laid, etc., etc. In Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, it’s the Pas-de-Calais department in the much-maligned north of France, whose inhabitants, known as “Ch’tis” because they speak a (now pretty much defunct) patois called Ch’ti* or Ch’timi, are characterized as a bunch of drunks who quack like ducks and schlur their words: “siens” becomes “chiens,” for example, and “Stevie Wonder” becomes “Schtevie Wonder.”
The film relies on these tics for much of its hilarity. The story goes like this: the bitchy wife of post office manager Philippe (Kad Merad, an actor who gets many roles like this but deserves better) wants him to get transferred to a seaside town. They already live in sunny Provence. When he loses out on the desired post because he was passed over for a disabled candidate, he pretends to be disabled himself. It works, but he is found out. His punishment is the worst fate imaginable for a French person: a transfer to the north. His wife refuses to go, so he sets off on his own, dressed in a ski parka to protect him from the expected Arctic cold of the north (ha, ha).
After many misunderstandings of the local language and customs, he quickly discovers that the people of the north are warm and wonderful, and life there is tons of fun. It’s a great place to live! (Since the film was written and directed by and stars Dany Boon, a popular comedian who trades on his Ch’ti origins in his stand-up act, this development is no surprise.) Philippe neglects to tell his wife the good news, however, since she feels so sorry for him living in the north that she is actually being nice to him for a change.
Once the jokes at the expense of the Ch’tis have worn out, the movie turns into a feel-good film of the Crocodile Dundee genre, but with even less depth. This is basically a low-budget, TV-grade movie with a ridiculous plot that somehow made it to the big screen and schtruck a chord with the French.
* Editor’s note: 14.6 million and counting as of March 26, 2008
** The name “Ch’ti” was made up by soldiers during World War I to describe their fellow poilus from Picardy. It is a contraction of “ch’est ti” (“c’est moi” in “Ch’ti”). Ch’ti is not really a patois, but a Roman language in its own right, with its own grammar, called Picard, which is also spoken across the border in Belgium, where the film is also a huge hit.
“Ch’ti” is also the name of a brand of beer made in the north of France.