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Eat your heart out, Mademoiselle from Armentières. There is finally another reason more recent than World War I to remember this town on the Belgian border. It is the birthplace of the local stand-up comedian turned actor-director, Dany Boon, who has just broken all box office records with a film about a part of France that most French people would secretly like to hand over to the Belgians.
Boon has been making a living for years by poking fun at a French département that has never recovered from being characterized as a dismal wasteland in Zola’s 19th century novel, Germinal. Its weather, in reality typically British of course, was described by Boon as just three showers a year – each lasting four months. He got away with such irony because of his impeccable working class and linguistic credentials. The son of an Algerian lorry driver and a French domestic cleaner, Boon spoke scarcely a word of French until the age of 12. His first language was Ch’timi, a Picardian dialect of 17th century French and Flemish, incomprehensible to anyone living outside the region.
A year ago Boon was best known as the husband, or rather the ex-husband, of a successful French actress, Judith Godrèche, and for his performance in a hilarious French version of The Magic Roundabout. But then Boon had the idea of making a comedy that highlighted the secret charms of this depressed area full of unemployed coal miners of Polish extraction. He persuaded the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional administration to contribute 600,000 Euros to a budget of 11 million, money down the drain according to some local politicians, especially when they discovered that the film would be made in the local dialect and would need French sub-titles.
The cynics have been proved spectacularly wrong. Boon’s film, Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis, which might be loosely translated, Welcome to the Sticks (from the English idiom living out in the sticks, that is, miles from anywhere that anyone has heard of). The film is set in Bergues, not a place many French geography students could quickly place on the map. In fact it is a small town about 11 kilometers south of Dunkirk, optimistically describing itself as a second Bruges without the canals. Bergues’ tourist office is now running guided tours for visitors who have seen the film, and want to have their pictures taken in front of the post office or the bell tower. The local shops now stock copies of a phrasebook, French into Ch’timi and vice-versa.
The film’s success is based on the brilliant interaction between Boon and an Algerian-born comedien turned actor, Kad Merad, who plays Philippe Abrams, a post office administrator in Salon-de-Provence, whose comfortable existence is shattered by a well-meaning but easily spotted scam to obtain a transfer to a Riviera town to keep his wife happy. As a punishment Abrams is sent to the post office equivalent of the French foreign legion, the post office at Bergues, where, having been told exaggerated tales about the weather, he arrives in moon boots in midsummer. A local postman, Antoine Bailleul, played by Boon, puts him through some gruesome local customs, such as dipping over-ripe cheese on toast into his coffee, before showing him what a good time can be had in Bergues. Rather too good, as it turns out, when Abrams’s wife, thinking him a hero for suffering alone in the extreme north, one day turns up unexpectedly…
Perhaps the true irony is that the one place you cannot see the film is Bergues itself because the cinema there closed more than twenty years ago.
From our May 2008 newsletter