Slimane with daughter Karima and granddaughter

Although 2008 has been a good year for film releases, I’ve been waiting for another film that really bowled me over, like Fatih Akin’s Auf der Anderen Seite. I wondered if Couscous would be that film and I was disappointed to miss it locally. So disappointed in fact that I shelled out £12 to see it at the Curzon Mayfair (a truly wondrous cinema I hadn’t visited for more than 30 years). And, yes, Couscous proved to be an overwhelming film, not without flaws, but then the great films never are.

This is a film with a simple story, but one that works on several levels for a discerning audience. It also demands that the audience works and suffers a little so, unsurprisingly, it is one of the most critically praised films of the last year and one which has prompted audience walk-outs and derision.

Slimane is a 61 year-old shipyard worker in the port of Sète on the Mediterannean coast of France. The port is declining in terms of fishing and boat repairs and tourism is the growing trade. Slimane is a victim of economic circumstance and is forced into redundancy. This prompts him to consider his legacy to his extended family. He is separated from his wife Souad and is now living in a small room in the hotel owned by Latifa his current partner. He has numerous daughters and sons who together with their spouses and children constitute a large crowd for Souad’s famous couscous dinners. But it is Latifa’s daughter Rym who is closest to Slimane – who understands him best and tries to help him achieve what he wants. The vehicle for this turns out to be a plan to create a ‘fish couscous restaurant’ on an old ship destined for scrap.

The idea of a restaurant opening as a feelgood ending to a film is something of a cliché, but in Couscous the ending is not conventional and the story has several levels. I was reminded of Volver – a very different film in which the Penelope Cruz character is obliged to run a restaurant to cover up her other actions. Couscous and Volver are essentially family melodramas. The difference is that the writer-director of Couscous, Abdel Kechiche, has adopted a distinctive style. It is a form of social realism that has been compared to Renoir in 1930s France and Italian neo-realism. I can understand this (in her Sight & Sound review, July 2008, Ginette Vincendeau mentions Renoir and references an Agnès Varda film with neo-realist tendencies) and it works on the level of location shooting and the use of non-professionals etc., but it is important to recognise the contemporary stylistic decisions.

Kechice uses a handheld camera and alternates between BCUs (big close-ups, emphasising parts of the face) and long shots as expressive devices. Much of the time, the film looks fairly conventional, but the BCUs dominate in the emotional interactions between family members and the long shots (which are neo-realist references, I think) feature in the narrative when Slimane is being placed in the environment of the port. I take the BCUs to be part of the melodramatic ‘excess’ of the family exchanges (along with the music in the restaurant scenes). They are difficult to watch, not least because the emotion is raw and we focus on crying eyes, food being taken and chewed etc. The effect is heightened by the whip pans between characters. I was sitting on the front row in the middle of a giant screen and it was certainly disorientating. But by making the audience uncomfortable in this way, I think Kechice forces us into the family exchanges. The critics argue that the exchanges go on far too long (the film is 154 mins) but I disagree. I was never bored in the screening (even if occasionally I couldn’t watch because I felt the emotion too much).

For me, the triumph of the film is to use this one man’s story to act as a metaphor for a wide range of issues about not only the experience of North African migrants to France, but also about French society under late capitalism, masculinity in crisis etc. The metaphors begin to appear very early. A woman’s bottom is spanked in a brief sexual encounter and the action then cuts to the boat repair yard as a commentator’s voice explains careening – the process of turning a boat on its side to expose the underside for cleaning and repairs. There is something almost biblical about Slimane collecting fish from the local fishermen (with whom he obviously has good relations) and distributing them throughout his family – and getting a varied response for his pains. The metaphor is also there in the title of the film, I think. I can’t remember the subtitle, but at some point there is an inference that ‘la graine’, which means the seed, could also mean the ‘secret’. The title in some parts of the world is actually ‘The secret of the grain’. We might argue that the constituents of the meal: the couscous (a processed form of semolina), vegetables, hot sauce (harissa) and fish (grey mullet in this case) are each in some way symbolic. The fish comes from the fishermen, the vegetables are prepared by the women of the family. I think Rym provides the spice and the narrative reveals that the couscous itself becomes the mystery. This is a very contrived reading of course, but I do think that the film is more than just a humanist account of one family.

One of the interests in the film in a UK context comes from the fact that this is one of the few French films from what used to be called ‘beur cinema’ to be released in the UK. What it reveals is a film which, as Vincendeau notes, is not primarily focused on issues about ethnicity and nationality. I don’t think that Slimane’s native country is actually mentioned (although the reviews suggest Tunisia). What is clear is that he is accepted by the other men on the docks and it is the next new wave of migrants that is the concern as industry declines. Slimane’s children are the second generation and they are French. There is no discussion of Islam (except indirectly in the practice of reserving a plate of couscous for a poor person) but I did note that one of the IMDB commentators, who I took to be from the Maghreb, refers to the ‘Egyptian’ belly-dance sequence (an implication of vulgarity?). The hybridity of local culture is also emphasised by two members of the extended family, a daughter-in-law who is Russian and a French son-in-law who is teased about his attempts to speak Arabic.

It is the small things that add up in the narrative. For instance, Souad’s insistence in taking a plate of food to the poor will inadvertently cause problems, compounding a major disaster created by the behaviour of one of the men. The story is about Slimane and it takes its dramatic pulse from the emotions that build up around the project to help him open his restaurant. What he really wants to do is to feel that he has done something for his family. I’m reminded of that great Sam Peckinpah film, Ride the High Country in which Joel McCrea plays an ageing gunfighter who dies believing that at last he can “enter his house justified”. That’s all that Slimane wants and for me the ending of the film works.