New film breaks box office record

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A warm-hearted comedy set in the chilly, rain swept north of France has become the most successful French film ever, breaking a 41-year-old record, its producers Pathe said yesterday.

"Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" (Welcome to the home of the Ch'tis) has been seen by over 17,405,000 cinemagoers since its release on Feb. 27, against a total of around 17,267,000 who went to see the 1966 comedy "La Grande Vadrouille", Pathe said.

The film, about a postal worker from the hot south who is transferred to a remote village in the north, is now on course to beat France's all time box-office record, held by "Titanic", which had more than 20 million viewers.

Made for a reported 11 million euros (£8.7m) by comedian Danny Boon, the film pokes fun at stereotypes about the north, a region blighted by industrial decline whose inhabitants are often stigmatised as backward, uncouth beer drinkers.

Inevitably, the exiled postman learns to appreciate the loveable cast of eccentrics he encounters, their customs and their peculiar dialect.

Wildly popular among "Ch'tis" themselves in the north, the film has attracted audiences across the whole country and President Nicolas Sarkozy is even reported to have asked for a special private screening in the Elysee Palace.

The prejudices that still exist against the region were underlined by a banner unrolled at a recent football match involving the northern club of Lens, reading "Pedophiles, unemployed and inbred, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis".

But the flood of outraged comment and the massive police hunt for the opposition supporters behind the taunt has underlined the effect the film has had.