European film is a multi-layered subject to study academically. There’s European film, as a body of work to be made in a certain continent; and there’s European cinemas, the individual film industries of the countries within that continent. Much of European film studies is the commonalities and differences between films made in Europe in terms of their continental identity and national identity.
Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (“Welcome to the Ch’tis”) is definitely a French film more than a European film, as the subject matter is about the cultural divide between France’s north and south, rather than between France and another European country.
Following release, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis debuted at #1 in the box office and became France’s highest-grossing film domestically, grossing €162M. This was mostly due to the role played by actor, writer and director Dany Boon (who stars as Antoine Bailleul). Born Daniel Hamidou, Boon renamed himself after Daniel Boone and became one of France’s most successful comedians. Ch’ti is a regional language of the Hauts-de-France region – and a language which Boon spoke throughout his stand-up show A s’baraque et en ch’ti, which became France’s best-selling DVD of a one-man show. Born in the region that became Hauts-de-France, Boon made Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis as an affectionate, self-deprecating comedy about stereotypes of the Hauts-de-France region.
Regarding Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis’ nationality, PATHE!, Hirsch, Les Productions du Ch’Timi and TFI Film Production act as production companies, with PATHE! Distribution being responsible for distributing throughout France and in limited release internationally – all of which are exclusively French companies. TF1 Film Production own TF1, the largest privately-owned European television channel. European films will often be co-produced by television companies, as Europe’s television industries and film industries are more closely-merged.
To a British viewer, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis may be surprisingly relatable. The North is portrayed as being dark and rainy, where the people are drunk idiots – unlike the successful industrialists of the sunny south.
These are the same stereotypes present between southern England and Northern England, right down to the geographic similarities.
The title in English is even implying that Northern France is summarised with the phrase, “Welcome to the Land of Shit” – which says enough of how Northern France is perceived by Southern France.
PATHE! only invested a limited release for Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis internationally, due to the way the comedy is derived from in-jokes within French culture, which might not travel well outside of France.
The cultural divide between the different accent regions is something universal in any large country, though the way this is translated is less so; some of the English subtitles are written phonetically – the speakers of standard French are translated literally, while the speakers of ch’ti in Hauts-de-France are translated with the differences visibly written. Ch’ti is so named due to the way Ch’ti exchanges the voiceless alveolar sibilant with the voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant. Ch’ti in Ch’ti is pronounced ʃit – Ch’ti in standard French is pronounced sti.
Thus, there’s a scene in-which Bailleul is explaining to Abrams why Abrams’ house is unfurnished – Bailleul is explaining that the previous owner moved it to an office. In Bailleul’s ch’ti accent, ɒfIi: becomes ɒfIʃ; thus, the subtitles display “office” as “offish”, but only when pronounced in ch’ti. Even the subtitles are aware of standard French being the social norm. But the office/offish confusion was an interpretation of the scene in English – the original scene in French was about two completely words that sound similar, which wouldn’t in English.
Writing in The Guardian, David Cox said
“The subtitler succeeds in matching French mis-speaks with plausible English equivalents in a tour de force which merits the creation of a whole new Oscar category”.
Even to regular watchers of “foreign language” films, Bienvenue chez les Ch’ti might be a challenging experience; reading subtitles can be difficult-enough for the unfamiliar, but reading phonetic subtitles is two other skills at the same time.
In 2010, Will Smith bought the rights to an American adaptation in English, which was shelved in 2015. Had this been released, I’d suggest a similar plot involving a character from the Southern United States, like Florida, relocating to the Northern United States, like Maine.
Were the same kind of adaptation to happen in Britain, the two major locations should be in South West England, like Cornwall, and the Scottish Highlands and Islands, like Caithness.
As a comedy, there’s elements of the comedy of manners – Hauts-de-France is less conservative when it comes to manners and standards, while there are also elements of slapstick in certain moments to exaggerate the ridiculousness of the premise. Fish-out-of-water is also definitely an accurate description from Abrams’ perspective, and Bailleul’s arc resembles a typical romantic comedy.
Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis is an important European film, because it’s themes of national divide remind the audience that each European country has its own identity, which is a very hot topic right now in the wake of the Brexit vote.