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Monday, July 11, 2011


I remember in my early childhood we had several times at home dishes based on couscous. Not often: couscous is almost unknown in Romania. Years have passed and I ate couscous once more. It was in a Moroccan restaurant this time, in Silver Spring, Maryland. I ordered it maybe for two reasons: a bit as I was curious, a bit as my imagination took me back to my childhood years in Bucharest.

I didn't have the occasion to come again to the Moroccan restaurant. I miss it, as I miss my trips to Silver Spring.

But that's another story, my nostalgia for Silver Spring. Let's talk here about couscous: it's very popular across the whole Middle East. And I am very enthusiastic for their cuisine. Every time I go to a restaurant I'm looking for such dishes in the menu. Well, I praise the Greek cuisine more, let's set this clearly, and I praise the Afghan dishes the most, but the Mid East food is there too, some place in the top.

No wonder that when I have read first time about a movie named Couscous, I immediately wanted to find a copy and watch it. Only it was not that easy to find the movie.

I found a dvd copy unexpectedly, in a Bucharest bookstore (they have many movies I am very interested in, Japanese or from Hong Kong, Turkish or Iranian, Korean or from Mainland China; what I haven't found there were movies from Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-Hsien for instance).

The title of the movie is La Graine et Le Mulet, which actually means Fish Couscous. And so for many of its viewers, this movie is referred simply as Couscous (the movie is known in US as The Secret of the Grain).

It was made in 2007 by Abdellatif Kechiche, a French filmmaker of Tunisian origin: his third movie (coming after La Faute à Voltaire, and L'Esquive). All these movies deal in a way or another with the life of immigrant communities in France, their efforts to integrate, to be accepted, also what they keep from their original culture.

This time in Couscous the director wanted to show his own background, the universe of his own family, Tunisian immigrants living in Nice, and especially he wanted to bring a tribute to his father, the man who had struggled for all his life to transmit a sense to all of them. It was not to be a biographical film, what Mr. Kechiche was looking for was to catch an atmosphere, and I would say, to catch the ethos.

The shootings have not been done in Nice, as the director feared to become much too sentimental. The chosen location was Sète instead, a small Mediterranean town, where the fishermen leave on their boats each morning and sometimes reach North Africa or the Asian borders, a town struggling with the same issues as everywhere in Europe nowadays: decline of production and unemployment, with the small shipyard challenged by concurrence, the fishing industry challenged the same.

The director had intended to ask his father to play in the movie and started to look for funding and to organize the team. Meanwhile the father passed away. Mr. Kechiche decided then to put a Tunisian actor in the role of the father. It was Mustapha Adouani, whom the director knew very well. Exactly when shootings were to start, Mr. Adouani fell gravely ill (he died after a few months), so they had to find on the spot another solution.

And the solution they found proved brilliant: they hired a non-actor, Habib Boufares, a worker from Nice, a lifelong friend of the father. The role fitted to him as a glove!

Actually almost the whole team is of non-actors. The screenplay details were very loosely followed, the director left to the cast the full liberty to improvise. They were playing their own kind of life after all! And they lived their life there, in front of the camera (it was a handheld camera , to not impede the non-actors in any way). This movie breathes trough all its pores of life, of authenticity, of immediacy!

There are only a few professional actors in the cast. Hafsia Herzi (a young actress showing stamina and commitment) plays Rym, the step-daughter of the father, a very determined girl, sincerely attached to him and giving full support in difficult moments. There is also Alice Houri, bringing in a secondary role force and sincerity.

I have read the reviews to this movie. Many of them are very critical. The movie is excessively long, they say, and there are a lot of scenes that could have been much shorter without loosing anything. It is a 150 minutes film: one third is devoted to a dinner in family; the mother has prepared fish couscous (you could guess), an endless chat is about anything and nothing; a second third is devoted to a dinner on a boat-restaurant, where everybody is waiting for the main course (fish couscous, you betcha).

Well, it depends on your taste to like this movie or not (it goes the same with couscous). I think the director took this risk, to let each scene to unfold on its own, regardless how long it was taking, for the sake of authenticity. He was interested in catching the universe of that community of Tunisian immigrants, in rendering it as natural as it really is; to get this way the ethos of that world. And he needed for this to not interfere in any way: neither by screenplay, nor by camera, nor by editing.

It is a family risking to disintegrate: the parents are separated, one of the sons is cheating his wife, there are tensions with the step-daughter. What keep them strong is the recourse to their specificity when need is: their cuisine, the wonderful plates with fish couscous. And their music and dance, in the most dramatic moments. There is a long scene of belly dance at the end of the movie: I don't want to say more, to not spoil the story. These guys speak only French and follow the French system of values. They keep however their cultural origins as assets.

Some reviewers mentioned Eat Drink Man Woman of Ang Lee: there also it is cuisine that keeps family against disintegration. I would mention also in this context A Touch of Spice: a Greek family forced to leave Istanbul will keep their specific identity by keeping to Politiky Kouzina, the way Greeks from Istanbul use spices in their dishes.

For me Couscous called in mind also 35 Rhums, another French movie whose heroes also belong to an ethnic minority in France.

I think somehow the family in Couscous and the movie itself resemble: both could disintegrate, both keep ultimately strong, the family keeping to their cuisine, the movie by keeping to the authenticity of this universe and by getting their ethos.

Well, what is this movie about? A man in his early sixties, after tens of years of working in the shipyard is forced to quit his job: he is simply too old. His personal life is far from being a success: separated from his wife (while having four or five sons and daughters, some of them married with kids), without money to pay the alimony to his large family, very discouraged in his new love relationship (while superbly supported by his step-daughter). And this man lives with a crazy dream: to start a small restaurant on a disaffected boat, specialized in fish couscous. Only the step-daughter stands by him from the very beginning. Little by little the other guys, family and friends, get captivated by the idea and start to help. His ex-wife will be the cook: she has the secret of preparing great fish couscous. A demonstrative dinner will be organized on the boat, having all the authorities of the town as guests. His daughters will be waitressing while his friends will play Arabic music to entertain the guests. Only the troubles are far from over.

And maybe what his family will realize (together with us, who are watching the movie) is that it is not the success that matters, rather the example of giving sense to your life.

Couscous - Trailer
(video by Criterion Collection)

(Abdellatif Kechiche)


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