La Comédie Française




La Belle France has given us some great stuff. On and off, that is, over the years, like. I could mention Flaubert and Rousseau. I could mention Rohmer and foie gras, or Champagne and Bardot. Or Zidane. Or Cantona. But what it’s never been very good at, and I hate to say this, is funny stuff. Uncross your fingers and tell me honestly if Jacques Tati makes you laugh. Eh? And when was the last time that weird French friend of yours told you a joke? Come on, let’s come clean here – Jean Pierre likes to think he’s drôle but actually, he’s just boring.

I’ve been waging this campaign for several years now, trying to convince the populace that la comédie française is, at best, an oxymoron. Let’s just say it’s aspirational.

A few years ago some misguided friends of mine (they were misguided for the following reason, not because they were friends of mine ha ha this is a joke and if I were Parisian I’d win a medal for anything as sidesplitting as this) chose to go and see a film called Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis. They tried to convince me but I was not totally stoned out of my brain so I spurned their invitation. Ever since then, whenever the subject comes up, I remind the world that the French don’t know what “funny” means, and my friends will bring up this blasted film. “I haven’t laughed so much for ages”, says my friend David’s wife Martina. I love Martina. I also love winding her up. Not quite as much, but almost. Don’t tell David that, though.

Anyway. The thing is that a few days ago I succumbed to watching Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis. I think the reason I did so is the same reason I went and read The Da Vinci Code – I wanted to know firsthand what it was that I was quite prepared to slag off without tasting it on my own tongue, so to speak.

Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis is now 4 years old so I don’t feel bad about containing spoilers here. If you ever wanted to see this film, you have already done so. It’s never going to be a classic, so nobody will bother watching it in, say, 20 years’ time, so I can tell you what it’s about without fear of ruining anybody’s viewing pleasure unduly.

OK, here we go. It’s the story of the boss of a post office who wants to get transferred to a nice town in the south of France, mainly to keep his wife happy. In the end he gets transferred to the north, which he thinks he’s going to loathe but in fact he quite likes it. His wife stays behind and feels sorry for him. He ends up having to lie to her, saying what a wretched life he is living when actually he’s enjoying himself.

Are you rolling around on the floor yet?

After a while, she decides to see for herself what a hell hole her hubby has been forced to go and live in and this is when the film actually becomes momentarily amusing – the whole town puts on a show of being backward, uncouth and generally dreadful people, so as to make Julie feel even sorrier for her poor husband Philippe. This snatch of genuine comedy lasts a mere 5 minutes or so; the effort at being funny is too much and I suppose too foreign for our Gallic cousins and in the end the whole film sinks into a smiley “feel good movie”.

A lot of the so-called humour of this film is the difference between standard French, as spoken by Philippe and Julie, and the dialect spoken by the locals of the town of Bergues – Ch’ti. Let me go out on a limb here and say I think the equivalent in the UK would be Geordie. And if the film were re-made in Spain, you could go for some remote village in Galicia or Cádiz. The way the Ch’tis speak French, if this film is anything to go by, is to pronounce “S” as “SH”. It would seem that for the average Frenchman, this is not only baffling but hilarious.

Personally, I found it baffling that anyone could think this is hilarious.

The first ten minutes of this film are scandalously bad. I was practically vomiting at the shameless antics of Kad Merad as Philippe, trying to get his transfer to a nice place in the south. However, I had been warned by my friends that “it gets better”, so I bore with it. (They say the same about tuberculosis.)

If Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis weren’t desperately seeking to be hilarious, it wouldn’t be so awful. The way that Philippe gradually comes to accept the lifestyle in the town of Bergues is enjoyable to watch. Director Dany Boon makes us appreciate the endearing Ch’tis so that we laugh “with” rather than “at”, as Philippe gets to grip with these loveable Northerners and struggles trying not to let his wife know what’s cooking.

Don’t get me wrong. This film is watchable. It’s even fun. But it ain’t funny.

You want to watch something funny? You watch Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. Now we’re talking.


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