Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Couscous

Reviews - Couscous


Reviewed By John Stakes

In 2007 couscous was voted the second best French dish ahead of beef bourguignon. It is made of natural rolled wheat and is a simple but deceptive dish as it is very difficult to get it right. In Tunisian born Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2007 film of the same name both the film and the dish are expertly served and make a delicious treat.

Kechiche’s craftsmanship was not immediately obvious and patience was initially needed but handsomely rewarded: the film ran to over 2 hours 30 mins. The director’s style was laconic and he used the relative freedom of European filmmakers to take as long as they feel is needed to achieve their objective (you won’t find many directors’ cut versions of films this side of the Atlantic) and the result here was nothing short of outstanding.

Kechiche boldly took the whole of the first half of the film to introduce us to Tunisian immigrant Slimane and to his extended family (he had remarried following a divorce) which had settled in the French port of Sète but was still separated by culture and custom from French life. Slimane’s home and working life was also far from settled as he faced redundancy from his job as a shipyard worker of 35 years

Kechiche used long takes mainly in close-up of the various fractious members of his family played by a largely amateur cast who were rigorously workshop trained to the point of being fasted before the meal scenes and encouraged to deliver entirely naturalistic performances.

Slimane (a wonderful performance by Habib Boufares who in real life had worked on a building site owned by the director’s father) decided to apply his redundancy money against huge odds to realise his dream of opening a floating restaurant on an old boat moored in Sète harbour. He hoped his family would share his dream by being prepared to bury their own hatchets and to work with him. He managed to enlist his ex wife as chef but his second wife refused to come aboard and his children were reluctant converts.

Would he succeed against the odds was the tantalising premise of the second half of the film. Slimane showed a quiet determination at the expense of revealing any other emotion or feeling, but when he was obviously out of his depth with the authorities his step-daughter Rym rescued him and kept his dream afloat. However despite her best efforts it was inevitable that sibling and other rivalries would surface to jeopardise his dream.

Just how much we had been gradually drawn into this family drama was revealed at the point when it became clear that the couscous prepared for the flagship opening night was still in the boot of a car with its driver’s whereabouts unknown and the customers made up of local luminaries were growing restless. A sudden and audible silence gripped what was the largest audience of the current season as Slimane’s dream turned into a nightmare. From this point to the final credits Kechiche maintained all the tension he had so assiduously established.

This was a film where the true comedy and tragedy of real life were seamlessly blended; where there was not a hint of sentimentality throughout ( even during the scenes of emotional outpourings from Slimane’s daughter-in-law ) and where each scene was allowed to develop from the previous one without a scrap of plot manipulation. So refreshing. All the performances were excellent but none more so than that of Hafsia Herzi as Rym who was mesmeric throughout and particularly in the climactic and erotic belly dance sequence. The film bravely avoided trying to neatly round off the drama so we were able to graft on our own ending.

This film picked up the special jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and thoroughly deserved it.

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