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British hit ‘The Office’ premieres in French

Even in France, life in ‘Le Bureau’ can be a dreary yet funny affair
French actors Solene Bouton, left, Xavier Robic, center, and Francois Berleand, are seen in this Dec. 21, 2005 picture, supplied by Canal Plus, in a scene from the French adaption of the classic British comedy \"The Office.\" Judging by the hilarious French version, workers pretty much complain about the same things as their English counterparts: a lunatic boss, exasperating co-workers and generalized boredom. \"Le Bureau,\" which premiers this week on Canal Plus, is the first time that the BBC comedy which also spawned an American verion on NBC last year has been translated.Guillaume Perrin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

What could workers in France, land of the 35-hour work week and seemingly endless vacations, possibly complain about?

Judging by the hilarious French adaptation of the classic British comedy “The Office,” pretty much the same things as their English counterparts: a lunatic boss, exasperating co-workers and generalized boredom.

“Le Bureau,” which premiered last week on Canal Plus, is the first time that the BBC comedy (which in early 2005 also spawned an American version on NBC, starring Steve Carell) has been translated into a different language.

While plot lines and much of the dialogue survive, cultural references have been adapted to the Gallic context.

Gone are the quintessentially British allusions to endless pints of beer, replaced by talk of the occasional bottle of Champagne. Cheese is another new French tweak. In the original, the office prankster embeds his nemesis’ stapler in orange Jell-O; in “Le Bureau,” he hides a hunk of pungent fromage in his colleague’s desk drawer.

“Le Bureau” also downplays the original’s treatment of sexual harassment, which was a recurring theme.

The reason?

“In France, we don’t think of it as harassment, but rather something quite nice,” said Nicolas, who co-wrote the French adaptation. He and his partner, Bruno, only go by their first names.

Wernham Hogg, the fictitious paper-supply company from the British series (which, in NBC’s version, is called Dunder Mifflin and is based in Scranton, Pa.), becomes Cogirep in “Le Bureau.” (Its motto: “Passionnement Papier,” or “Passionately Paper.”)

The office itself is as dreary as its British counterpart: The mishmash of bulky furniture — of ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s vintages — looks like it crawled there to die. Yellowing files perch dangerously on all flat surfaces, and overhead fluorescent lights cast an unflattering pall.

Who's the boss?Veteran actor Francois Berleand plays Gilles Triquet, the Gallic incarnation of David Brent, the British “boss from hell” (who was played by “The Office” co-creator Ricky Gervais).

Though almost as deranged and delusional as his English counterpart, Triquet is somehow more dashing — or at least a tad less repulsive — than slimy Brent. Triquet’s suits seem to fit better and his ties — while still questionable — are less eye-popping. Chalk it up to innate French panache.

Still, Triquet makes just as many faux pas.

A closet bigot, he can’t resist stereotyping his black and Arab employees. In the first episode, he calls Laetitia, the young French receptionist of North African origin, “the warmth of the Orient, the spice route, the snake charmer.”

Through Triquet’s cringe-worthy remarks, the French writers sought to deliberately poke fun at the racism corroding France’s egalitarian principles. As “Le Bureau” highlights, racial minorities often have a tougher time finding jobs and housing than whites.

“We just tried to show things as they are, without sugarcoating anything,” said Bruno.

The main plot of “The Office” — a debate over whether to downsize — required no tweaking. Office closures are a French fact of life, with high labor costs prompting firms to shift jobs abroad and unemployment rates averaging more than 9 percent.

Another day at the officeNicolas and Bruno maintained the original’s mockumentary feel — with wildly pitching hand-held camerawork and one-on-one character interviews.

Shunning a studio set, they shot “Le Bureau” on location in a real office building in the depressed Parisian suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, a postindustrial wasteland near where last year’s riots started. (During the shoot, rampaging youths torched a nearby car dealership.)

Bruno and Nicolas replicated real office life as closely as possible. They shot from nine to five, with actors making the daily commute from Paris on public transport. The whole cast was required to punch in — and stay the whole day — regardless of whether they appeared in the scenes being shot.

“They mostly spent their time surfing the Internet,” Nicolas said, adding that a few cast members are now unbeatable at online bridge.

Whittling away time in front of a computer screen was a novel one for the actors, many of whom had never set foot in an office.

But a handful of real white-collar workers, who play minor characters and extras, showed them the ropes.

“They were fluent in business-speak and had the office routine down pat,” said Nicolas. “It was spooky.”

A second French season is already in the works — and the writer-director duo say at least one show will focus on a French perennial: strikes.