WELCOME TO THE STICKS (2008) : D.Boon : 6/10

IN A NUTSHELL : Smash-hit French comedy is slight, soft-centred but sufficiently charming to win over non-Gallic audiences.

Welcome to the Sticks is a breezy, likeable little comedy that's somehow become the all-time champ of the French box-office: a total of 20 million admissions eclipsing not only the most successful previous home-grown title, Gerard Oury's La Grand Vadrouille (1966) but also the most watched import, James Cameron's Titanic. In tone and style it's much closer to the former than the latter, Vadrouille being a knockabout wartime comedy in which two RAF airmen (played by Finchley's Terry-Thomas and Mexico's Claudio Brook) bail out over Paris and make their way home with the help of the gallant Résistance.
   La Grand Vadrouille literally translates as "The Big Stroll" but was released in English-speaking countries under the off-puttingly zany moniker Don't Look Now… We're Being Shot At! In comparison, Welcome to the Sticks isn't such a bad substitute for the original Bienvenue chez les ch'tis and it's certainly less of a mouthful than Welcome to the Land of the Chtis, which is how the movie was presented when shown at film-festivals in Britain and North America.
   The "ch'tis" in question reside in and around the northernmost of France's 26 régions, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, itself comprising two départements: Pas de Calais (Calais, Boulogne and Lens) and Nord, which includes the city of Lille and is the most populous of France's 100 départements (2,577,000 to Paris's 2,164,000). Many residents speak Picard – known locally as chtimi or ch'ti for short – which pronounces "s" as "sh" and which, while closely related to French, can be impenetrable to those from elsewhere in the country. Indeed, "southerners" often view Nord-Pas-de-Calais as a post-industrial, polluted, freezing-cold backwater.
   Such prejudices are satirised in Welcome to the Sticks, in which a post-office manager from the sun-kissed south – Philippe Abrams (Kad Merad) – is unwillingly relocated to the (real-life) small town of Bergues, near Dunkirk. This comes as bad news to his Riviera-besotted wife Julie (Zoé Félix), causing further frictions in what's evidently a somewhat 'tricky' marriage. Philippe ventures north alone expecting the worst – but finds Bergues a picturesque little spot full of friendly locals such as postman Antoine (director/co-writer Dany Boon).
   Adapting to the local lingo, food and customs takes time, but Philippe eventually fits right in. He can't quite bring himself to reveal this to Julie during his weekend visits back home, however, and Philippe finds that their enforced separation actually serves to improve their relationship. All goes swimmingly enough – until Julie decides to experience the "horrors" of Bergues for herself…
   Until Julie makes the long trek north, Welcome to the Sticks is a gently wry affair that raises smiles and chuckles rather than rires de ventre. The comedy only belatedly kicks into higher gear when Julie tours the wasteland that is Bergues – or rather, the nearby former mining hamlet which Antoine and company transform into an inverse 'Potemkin village' for the "benefit" of their boss and his wife. This extended sequence is by far the funniest stretch of the movie – silly and implausible, of course, but hardly out of place in a movie whose image of contemporary French life (largely devoid of economic, social and political problems) is only marginally less fanciful than, say, Amelie. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's movie – another runaway hit at Gallic cinemas – famously came under attack from one particularly vituperative French critic, who derided its "whitewashed" depiction of Paris and denounced it as pandering to the extrême droite of Jean-Marie Le Pen and company.
   Le Pen himself has been one of the few French voices to come out against Welcome to the Sticks, reportedly carping that the two main characters don't look like actual residents of Nord-Pas-de-Calas: "this is normal, since both of them are Arabs." Not for the first time, Le Pen has rather spectacularly missed the point: Abrams is an outsider, not a local. And while Dany Boon's real name is 'Hamidou', his father from Algeria, the family are of Berber, not Arab origin (an ancestry shared by, among others, Zinedine Zidane, Edith Piaf and Isabelle Adjani.) It's perhaps intended as a subtle in-joke that both Boon and Merad have Algerian connections – Merad was actually born there – while it's also noticeable that, while Merad's character has a Jewish surname, none of the movie's frictions have anything remotely to do with race, creed or religion (indeed, the Bergues bell-tower which features so prominently in the movie is explicitly identified as a secular structure.)
   One could accuse Boon and co-writers Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier of evasiveness – that if their movie was to have real satirical bite, it should tackle more unpleasant instances of contemporary prejudice than daft north/south misunderstandings. It's unlikely that such a move would find such lucrative results, of course, and in tough, transitional times – under the controversial leadership of the new President Sarkozy – one can't blame the French for embracing such a warmly optimistic view of human nature.
   That said, it's a little surprising to see a film seemingly intended solely for domestic consumption enjoying such prominent international exposure. Not for nothing does Boon's first closing-credits thank-you go to Francis Veber, the king of middle-brow French character-comedy, with whom he worked in 2006's The Valet. We're certainly a long way from the best that contemporary French cinema can offer – it's frustrating that  Sticks has obtained the distribution which has eluded superior work such as April In Love, Cold Showers, A Summer's Day and Charly.
   But then again this is an appealing, accessible, undemanding picture – which has been picked up for a stateside remake by Will Smith's production company and which (thanks to heroic efforts from the subtitlers, for whom this must have been a real cauchemar vivant) can play in any nation where one area looks down on another. Just as Christopher Eccleston's Dr Who reminded us "Lots of planets have a north," every country has a Nord – even if, as in Italy, Germany and the USA, that 'north' just so happens to be geographically 'down south.'

Neil Young


Bienvenue chez les ch'tis
aka Welcome to the Land of the Chtis
106m (BBFC timing)

director : Dany Boon (Dream House.)
editors :
   Luc Barnier (Summer Hours; Tel père pere telle filleBoarding Gate, etc)
   Julie Delord (debut)

seen 16.July.08 Newcastle (Tyneside Cinema :  £6.85)