Our Man in Paris: France warms to its 'frozen north'

It's grim oop north. Or as they say in France, ch'est mekand kes les ch'timis.

There is a land in the far, far north of France where red-brick terraces cluster for warmth around the lower slopes of slag heaps; where incest, drunkenness and unemployment are taught in primary school; where the people have empty pockets, loose morals, brutal accents and warm hearts.

To the English, the Nord-Pas de Calais is a garden of tropical delights. It is the gateway to the Continent, supermarkets full of cheap booze, and the destination for exotic weekends in Lille or Boulogne.

To the French, who seldom go there, the most northerly region of France is a frozen, post-industrial wasteland. It is a part of Belgium which is, unaccountably, part of France. It is a place where unemployed miners speak a dialect which sounds like a blend of Polish and Portuguese. It only rains three timesa year but each shower lasts for four months.

France has been chortling recently over its regional prejudices. The most successful French movie of the moment is a knockabout farce which mocks the national stereotypes about the Nord-Pas de Calais.

The movie – Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis – has caught the imagination of film-goers the length and breadth of France, but especially in the north. For the first time, here was a film, made in the local language by a local comic hero, which presents the area as the joyous and beautiful place that it is (or can be). Most films about the Lille-Calais area, taking their cue from Emile Zola's Germinal, dwell on unemployment, coal mines, suicide, rain, alcoholism and incest. In France, comedy and joie de vivre, are products of the sun-soaked south. Here, for the first time, is a life-affirming comedy about the north.

The film – a kind of extended TV sketch with one joke – looks likely to be one of the biggest box-office successes since Amélie in 2001.

Its writer, director and co-star is a stand-up comedian turned actor, Dany Boon, who was born in Armentières on the French-Belgian border. His co-star is an Algerian-born comedian turned actor, Kad Merad.

Merad plays a post office manager from Provence who is punished for minor trickery by being exiled to the north. He sets out in anorak and moon boots (in mid-summer) to discover – to his surprise – that the Pas de Calais is a welcoming, beautiful place with a distinctive local cuisine. He dare not tell his wife, back in Provence, the truth. She has fallen in love with him again because he has taken his exile so heroically. All is well until she decides to pay a visit ...

In several amusing scenes, Merad is given lessons in the regional language – Ch'ti or Ch'timi, from which the locals also take their name. The language is a survival of the Picard dialect of early French, with some additions from Flemish. Ch'est mekand kes les ch'timis means, roughly, C'est misérable chez les Ch'timis.

Pity the pauvre biloute (poor bloke) who has to subtitle it into English.

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