The Fine-Grain of Community, by Tom Jennings
Tom Jennings is captivated by Couscous and its sympathetic but unflinchingly honest portrait of an extended family struggling to make various ends meet.
Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film details the bonds and fissures within a French-Tunisian clan and social network beset by sundry economic, cultural and institutional pressures in the Mediterranean port of Sête, where the fishing and shipbuilding industries are rapidly declining. The film’s title (originally Le Graine et le Mulet – semolina grain and mullet; couscous’ contrasting main ingredients) emphasises the patterns and texture of daily existence, and its central set-piece mealtime scenes directly echo classic French family melodrama – though in a socio-economic milieu alien to the familiar upper-middle-class complacency. Superficially resembling Robert Guedigian’s downbeat Marseille-based social realism, here the manipulation of script, structure and pacing interconnects multiple levels of reference and significance to give an epic, novelistic feel. Fortunately this doesn’t detract from the specificity of characters and situations – Kechiche and the largely non-professional (but completely convincing) cast hailing from the background portrayed and intimate with the trials and tribulations tackled.
Facing redundacy after refusing to sacrifice craftsmanship to ‘flexibility’, world-weary 60 year-old ship’s carpenter Slimane (an impressively restrained Habib Boufares) collects fish from trawlermen mates and distributes them to his ex-wife Souad and their children’s families – whose responses (to him, his news and the fish) reflect their own diverse dilemmas and difficulties. The mullet eventually surface in Souad’s renowned Sunday-lunch – Slimane is not invited, but sons Hamid (unemployed) and Majid (an inveterate womaniser) deliver some to the low-rent hotel owned by his new partner Latifa. They suggest he return to the Tunisia he left as a young man, but instead he spends his severance renovating a rotting hulk into a floating restaurant showcasing Souad’s couscous. Latifa’s teenage daughter Rym (the superb Hafsia Herzi) helps negotiate the patronising, prejudicial, dismissive town bureaucracy, and everyone pitches in preparing for an opening night to seal official licensing. But Majid disappears for an assignation with the centrepiece semolina still in his car-boot, and the film ends with Slimane running round in circles in pursuit while Rym and his Tunisian friends entertain those gathered with traditional music and bellydance …
Couscous skilfully deploys, and undermines, prevailing multiculturalist discourses which misrepresent the immigrant experience as exotically (and dangerously) distinct from a supposedly indigenous mainstream – emphasising many interacting dimensions of difference which only translate into ‘otherness’ from a wilfully separate perspective. This family is thoroughly integrated in terms of local employment, neighbourhood and marriage, embodying a range of relationships with ‘native’ French and people from other backgrounds. Cross-cultural contrasts may result in enrichment and/or conflict, with outcomes impossible to simplistically attribute to tribal cliches – compare, for example, Majid’s betrayed Russian wife, bereft in isolation, with Slimane and Souad’s fully embedded estrangement. Furthermore, drawing on roots and customs can reinforce collective memory, practice and orientation; but may also represent defensive constraint – the illusory allure of looking backward when Slimane considers giving up, or the compulsion towards kin cohesion effectively colluding in Majid’s destructive philandering while keeping Latifa and Rym at arm’s length.
Crucially, issues of race and racism, while not denied, are only decisive when modulated by class division and hierarchy. Thrown on the modern economy’s scrapheap, Slimane rescues its rejected flotsam – not just the boat, but himself and what social and cultural capital he can muster – and gambles on his own account. Ironically, self-commodification in the post-industrial service sector entails artificially singling out, objectifying and amplifying those very markers of special identity that hitherto nourished everyday life in concert with all the other influences. Now, providing a niche-market ‘ethnic’ product means simultaneously appealing to, competing with, and satisfying the disciplinary gazes of the middle-class establishment. The business community leaders, local government functionaries, hangers-on and tourists are thus conflated here in the restaurant’s homogeneously grotesque, increasingly drunken patrons seeking suitably aestheticised touristic experience while remaining oblivious to the underpinning mundane human dramas reminiscent of working-class struggles to survive and thrive the world over.
The film’s bravest risk is to suspend this climax on an unbearably drawn-out knife-edge, with no way to predict the result. Confronting his desire to leave an enduring legacy after a disappointed life, our scarcely authoritative patriarch sets events in motion with his secular ‘loaves and fishes’, but heroic individualism is decidedly beside the point as he flails helplessly at the mercy of others. The kids stealing his moped crystallise his waning agency, leaving younger generations to work it out for themselves – with prospects hinging on the balance of internal forces as much as external limits. Nevertheless, the strengths and shortcomings of the elders appear uncannily reflected in their descendants, though recomposing in very different circumstances. If the daughters’ invocation of engagement, perseverance and solidarity can overcome pride and resentment and help galvanise the sons from their reluctance to act responsibly, the cultural matrix inherited from the past – whether concerning music, food or love – could clinch the blending of capabilities in fruitful directions. Devised partly as Kechiche’s tribute to his own father (a friend of the lead actor who died shortly before filming), Couscous succeeds well beyond his aim “to show all the complexities of this Franco-Arabic family … looking to a future which does not necessarily mean the denial of their own identity”.
Abdellatif Kechiche, in Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Southern Discomfort’, Sight & Sound, July 2008, p.47.