Film fantasy lures French to the Armagnac

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When the French begin their great return to the cities today after the Easter weekend, a small strip of south-west France, in the heart of the Armagnac, anticipates a continuing bonanza. For, what Peter Mayle did for Provence, a recent film has been doing for the neglected region of Gers, and the tourists - this time not British, but French - are crowding the roads, packing out the restaurants and buying up the local fare with a zeal quite unsought by the natives.

A detour into the Armagnac has become de rigueur for residents of Bordeaux returning from skiing weekends in the Pyrennees. Farmhouses and gites for the long summer holiday are rapidly booking up, and, horror of horrors, shops in the regional capital, which rejoices in the name Condom, say stocks of regional specialities, the Armagnac, the pates and even the fois gras, could run low.

The blame for this lies with a quintessentially French film, Le Bonheur est dans le pre - "Happiness is in the meadows", which has broken box office records wherever it has been shown, despite a panning from the critics. Released late last year, when the strikes were at their height, it was the only film to have people queuing down the Champs Elysees when getting into the city centre at all was an act of heroism.

Now, 4 million have seen it, and it is the critics, not the film's producer and stars, who are in the dock. A crop of essays has been written in the tone of "Who do they think they are, telling us what we should like?" and addressing the perennial French question of a supposed gulf between the cultural elite and the masses.

In fact, plenty of the broader cultural elite praised the film to the skies, but they are not by and large the critics, who found the film"trite", "cliched", "going for easy laughs", "like a Saturday night television comedy", "never engaging the intelligence of the viewer", and more besides. The only award it took last month at the French Caesars, a pale imitation of the Oscars, was "best supporting actor" for Eddy Mitchell.

There are ways in which Le Bonheur est dans le pre, which has now spawned an advertising catchphrase for the Paris public transport system ("happiness is not only in the meadows..."), merits all the adverse comments.

Yet the film reflects a set of hopes and dreams common to a large part of the French nation, prime among them the ideal of returning to the simple life in the unsullied countryside of childhood holidays. In the film, the dream and reality are brought up to date with a small-town factory threatened with closure, a posse of malevolent tax inspectors, a loyal bunch of salt-of-the-earth employees, and the threat of unemployment around every corner.

Little by little, the put-upon manager, encouraged by a friend who introduces him to the delights of the Gers, starts to live a double life. He acquires a mistress in the shape of the local fois gras producer, an eligible widow living in a classically restored farmhouse, which was loaned from a British couple for the filming.

A convoluted tale of doubtful probability unfolds, involving gangsters, a suicide, laundered money and stomach-churning goose-innards.

But it is all treated with a Mediterranean cheerfulness and played against the green and golden meadows of the Gers. There is a happy ending that has jobs saved, husbands swapped, geese strutting by, and everyone settling back in the kitchen to unlimited fois gras and local wine.

Le bonheur est dans le pre makes people feel good to be French, so good, that when politicians started alluding to it in speeches, the leader of the extreme-right National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, suggested an election might be on the horizon. But its real charm is that, for a couple of hours at least, it makes the French dream seem possible again.