Written by John Ruler
The town of Bergues has seen visitor numbers soar since the film was released © TiboF, Wikimedia
The movie Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis has done great things for the image of Nord-Pas de Calais. It’s not only captured the hearts of cynics who grew up on an Emile Zola image of grey skies and dingy landscapes, but has helped the hard-working tourist boards by showing the true face of a once much-maligned region. Reviews in British broadsheets have heaped praise on the story of how a post office manager survives, and grows to love, his reassignment from Provence to ‘a freezing dark place where it rains all year and people in red-bricked terrace houses dunk their Maroilles cheese in their coffee.’ His gradual conversion is a hilarious account of how he warms to the down-to-earth hospitality of the locals. ‘The whole world envies us the Ch’ti attitude!’ joked the Nord Éclair, a regional newspaper. ‘Long mocked for their accents, their slag heaps and their grey sky, northerners are rising up and claiming their identity.’ L’Express, the news weekly, called the film ‘an invaluable gift to Nord-Pas de Calais, a tourist brochure that the regional council could never have dreamt of’.
While the Brits may be baffled by all this fuss, the film, crudely translated as ‘Welcome to the Sticks’, has not only outsold Titanic’s 20 million ticket sales in France alone, but brought the word Ch’ti and all it stands for to a wider European audience, especially in the Netherlands and Belgium.
The film is homage to French comedy actor Dany Boon’s family roots. Boon both starred in and directed the film. ‘I have long wanted to claim my Ch’ti identity,’ he said, ‘There is something poetic about the poplar trees, the smells, the very low skies and the welcome of the people.’