At the port of Sète, Mr. Slimani, a tired 60-year-old, drags himself toward a shipyard job that has become more and more difficult to cope with as the years go by. He is a divorced father who forces himself to stay close to his family despite the schisms and tensions that are easily sparked off and that financial difficulties make even more intense. He is going through a delicate period in his life and, recently, everything seems to make him feel useless: a failure. He wants to escape from it all and set up his own restaurant. However, it appears to be an unreachable dream given his meager, irregular salary that is not anywhere near enough to supply what he needs to realize his ambition. But he can still dream and talk about it with his family in particular. A family that gradually gives its support to this project, which comes to symbolize the means to a better life. Thanks to its ingeniousness and hard work, this dream soon becomes a reality...or almost....Written by
Venice Film Festival
It's the third movie of Abdellatif Kechiche (coming after "La Faute à Voltaire", and "L'Esquive"). All these movies deal in a way or another with the life of Tunisian immigrants in France.
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 hand-held 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 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 the couscous as a dish). 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.
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