PARIS (AFP) — A French film mocking national stereotypes about the country's north, usually depicted as a bleak, depressed land of beer-swilling brutes, looks set to be the movie of the year here after smashing box office records.
"Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" has become a surprise hit since its national release last Wednesday and has already overtaken France's most costly film ever, "Asterix at the Olympic Games," which came out in January.
The title means "Welcome to the land of the Ch'tis" -- the nickname of the northerners living in the post-industrial regions bordering Belgium and the English Channel.
Films and novels about the area, which lacks the glamour of Paris and the sunshine of the Riviera, often feature coal mining, unemployment, rain or heavy drinking. This grim social realist tradition can be traced back to the 19th century writer Emile Zola and his bleak mining novel "Germinal".
For many French, not much has changed since then, apart from the closure of the coal mines. Recent films stereotype the Ch'tis as unemployed, suicidal and alcoholic folk prone to violence and who speak an impenetrable patois.
But "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," written and directed by Danny Boon, a Ch'ti himself who also stars in the movie, satirises the prejudices about area to reveal the warmth and big hearts of its people.
It tells the tale of a postal worker from the Mediterranean south of France posted to the northern town of Bergues. The prospect fills him with dread but he comes to realise that the Ch'tis have hearts of gold and warmly welcome strangers.
Boon said he wanted to dispel the popular French prejudices that depict his home region as one filled with "poverty, despair, unemployment and coal mines".
"So I wanted to make a human comedy in which the main character will discover 'Ch'ti culture' and the humanity of the people of the north," he said.
"Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," made on a budget of 11 million euros (17 million dollars, 8.4 million pounds), had by Monday pulled in 3.5 million viewers since its national release last Wednesday, distributors' figures showed.
That was the best ever opening for a French film.
It was far more than the 2.7 million viewers who in the first five days after its January release saw "Asterix at the Olympic Games," France's biggest-budget movie ever at 78 million euros.
Pathe, the co-producer and distributor of "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," says it is aiming at a total of 12 million viewers and that the movie might even outdo the record 20 million for "Titanic".
The Ch'ti region, popular with Britons who cross the Channel to stock up on cheap booze and cigarettes, gets few French tourists.
But Boon's movie could change that.
Bergues, the town where it is set, is at the centre of a Ch'ti craze.
From this weekend, it will be offering tours that show the various locations of the film. The town's tourist office website, which previously got around 10 hits a day, has in the past week been visited by several thousand people.
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