French flock to film about a simpler life

A scene from "Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'Tis"

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KAI RYSSDAL: Your average Hollywood blockbuster won't hit the break-even point until somewhere well past $140 million, but over in France, a low-budget comedy, with no big name stars and no real marketing budget, has pulled in that much in just seven weeks. That makes it the most successful French film of all time, economically anyway. Critics say the response to its feel-good message is a backlash against President Nicolas Sarkozy's flamboyance. Editorials are calling it a small-town triumph in the age of globalization.

John Laurenson reports from Paris.


JOHN LAURENSON: Some of the 18 million French people who've paid to see "Welcome to the Land of the Ch'tis." It's about a post office director who's under pressure from his wife to get a transfer to the Riviera, so he fakes a disability. When he's found out, he's sent, instead, to the northernmost tip of France, the district called simply and chillingly . . .

ACTOR: "Le Nord."

"The North," a little-visited corner of France with a reputation for rain, economic failure and alcoholism. People there speak an impenetrable dialect where they don't say "s," they say "ch," which is why they're called the "Ch'tis," the people who say "ch," but our hero, bald and getting on a bit, like an extraordinary number of current French movie heros, falls in love with the place and its simple but generous inhabitants. It's about ordinary people, and ordinary French people love it.

FRENCH WOMAN: You come out of the cinema feeling great. I love it when you can get up close and discover how people live, what they're really like with their qualities and their faults, which, in the end, aren't really faults at all. It's just life.

For France's president, who'd like very much his people to be more ambitious and run faster in the rat race, the message is not encouraging. Judging by the success of the Ch'tis, the French are in the grips of a deep, rather nostalgic hankering after the simple things in life, like friendship and getting drunk and, says Ann Fulda, movie critic with the Figaro newspaper, its success is a rejection of the corporate movie-making machine.

ANN FULDA: People don't want the choice of what's going to be a hit film made for them. They don't like it when they're told a film cost a fortune, with stars that were paid a fortune so it has to be a hit. They feel they're being taken for granted.

"Asterix at the Olympic Games," a star-studded comedy that cost $123 million, the most expensive French movie of all time, and the film everyone expected to be the big hit in 2008, but the French, grappling with globalization, preferred to go and see a post office director falling in love with a town where the economy's weak but local identity's strong. Executive producer Eric Hubert says the Ch'tis works because the writer, director and co-star, Dany Boon, is from the North of France. He is a Ch'tis.

Welcome to the Land of the Ch'tis is still looking for a distributor in the States, but already Hollywood producers are thinking about buying the concept and transposing it, says Hubert. It might work, he says, with a New Yorker in Texas. If the person writing it is from there and loves the place. In the meantime, the Ch'tis is set to break another record, and beat the most successful American movie to play in France -- Titanic.

In Paris, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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