Couscous (La Graine et le Mulet, The Secret of the Grain) (2007)

Couscous (aka La Graine et le Mulet, The Secret of the Grain) first published by Film4

Take the grain away from fish couscous, and you are left with nothing to absorb the acidity of the mullet or the spiciness of the sauce. A similar principle is at work in Abdellatif Kechiche’s film. All the ingredients seem to be in place for a predictable ensemble recipe where everything will come together harmoniously in the end – only for the director to leave us impatient and slavering, like the protagonist’s drunken dinner guests in the final scenes, for a perfect dish that may never arrive. In other words, he make us hungry for wishful fantasy, while slyly serving up something with all the frustrations, disappointments and unsavouriness of real life, so that we simultaneously are invited to dream up a happy conclusion while witnessing a tragic catastrophe that tastes very bitter indeed.

In a memorable image from Couscous (aka La Graine et le Mulet, The Secret of the Grain), we see the 61-year-old Slimane (Habib Boufares) running in circles, getting nowhere except out of breath, as he pursues a trio of taunting youths who have just stolen his moped at a moment when his future employment depends on it. The allusion to Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) reinforces the film’s neo-realist tone and working class setting, while the scene’s hellish circularity encapsulates the Sisyphean predicament of a man who has been forced into early retirement with little to show for his 35 years of shipyard labouring but a paltry severance package and declining health. Slimane, it seems, has always been running in circles.

Despite his humiliation and emasculation, the downtrodden patriarch still dreams of restoring his own dignity and creating something of value to leave behind for his extended family – and so he decides (off camera) to start up his own couscous business on an old boat that he will refurbish himself. Once again Slimane must face a vicious circle of French officiousness, prejudice and exclusion, and ends up staking all his last hopes in a lavish dinner party designed to attract investors. At this point his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), his many children, in-laws, co-workers and friends, his landlady/lover Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) and especially Latifa’s daughter Rym (Hafsi Herzi) all pitch in to make the perfect night for the man they love – until, whether by illogical happenstance or the workings of the evil eye, everything begins to unravel…  

By focussing on family, sacrifice, exile, and the unifying effects of a meal made with love, Kechiche might at first seem merely to be relocating the plot and themes of Babette’s Feast (1987), Big Night (1996), Chocolat (2000) or even Ratatouille (2007) to the Arabic diaspora community of Southern France – but in fact the French-Tunisian director has made a much riskier film than any of these. Couscous offsets lengthy, painstaking observations of domestic minutiae against the odd jarring narrative ellipse (like Slimane’s elided decision to open a restaurant), prefers subtle contrasts of character to sweeping melodrama, and, most strikingly of all, withholds the satisfying ending towards which everything has been carefully building. Perhaps only patient viewers may last the 151-minute distance, but they will be rewarded with feeling something that approximates Slimane’s own mixed sense of pride and dislocation, hope and despair, as he continues pursuing a dream that in fact began dying the day he emigrated, decades earlier. And the assured performance of newcomer Herzi as Slimane’s devoted sort-of stepdaughter – a figure for everything that is worthwhile in his newly adopted life – brings rewards all of its own.   

Kechiche projects onto the viewer an immigrant population’s impatient longing for liberty, equality and success, concocting a dish that is no more bitter or half-baked than cultural exile itself.

strap: Abdellatif Kechiche’s third feature is an ensemble film about food, family, failure and friction within France’s community of North African émigrés. 

Anton Bitel