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Couscous: The food of life

July 27, 2015 at 11:40 am

Set in the French port of Sète, Couscous takes us through the dramas in the family life of central character Slimane Beiji, a 61-year old immigrant from Tunisia. The film, showcased as part of the Shubbak Festival and directed by Tunisian- born director Abdellatif Kechiche, is an intense and sumptuous epic of human emotion.

We first meet Slimane in the shipyard he has worked in for the past 35 years. His hours are to be cut, because, in the words of his cruel boss, he’s “tired and … tiresome”. We follow him as he leaves the shipyard on hearing the bad news, collects fresh fish from the fisherman in the port, and delivers it to the important women in his life.

First, he stops off at his ungrateful ex-wife Souad, who already has a freezer-full of uneaten fish. Second, he visits his bullish daughter who is busy chastising her child for not using the potty. Lastly, Slimane visits his lover Latifa and her daughter Rym, who sees him very much as a father figure. They run the exhausted looking hotel where Slimane rents a room.

This is our first introduction to Slimane’s relationship with his family. We learn more during a Sunday lunch; an extended scene in which his first family – three married daughters, two sons, their wives and husbands – gather at the house of his ex-wife. Kechiche shoots the dialogue in a way that makes you feel part of the family; he uses fast panning shots from face to face to convey familial warmth. Slimane is discussed but is conspicuously absent from the dinner.

Financial worries eat at Slimane, who desperately wants to leave a legacy to his much loved family. His sons try to encourage him to go back to Tunisia to start a business. He,however gets to work on realising an old dream; turning a dilapidated old boat into a fish restaurant. With Rym as his sidekick, they try to secure various loans and licences to get their project off the ground, but face a bureaucratic maze. It is not just the authorities that stand in the way; friends mock him behind his back (“Make a restaurant out of a boat? What’s he got, a screw lose”) and his love, Latifa, feels humiliated when it turns out Souad, his ex-wife, will be the cook.

Rym, an intelligent and headstrong young woman, guides Slimane through the process. A natural businesswoman, she is focused on ensuring the un-commanding presence of Slimane does not prevent him from succeeding. In the end, a plan is conceived; the restaurant will throw a massive dinner and those who have stood in their way will be invited. It is a night the pair hope will prove all the doubters wrong- and the stakes are high.

The big day arrives. Like in many other points in the film, Kechiche lingers on seemingly dull and menial domestic duties, like the peeling of potatoes in preparation for the dinner- but it is in these moments that the workings of the family are laid bare and it is this technique which provides the film with its richness and complexity.

The evening ahead is full of drama and painful suspense. Latifa refuses to attend and Rym refuses to go without her; instead watching the festivities taking place from the window of the run-down hotel her mother owns. The love life of Slimane’s cheating, feckless son explodes with grave consequences. Slimane has to leave his own party. Meanwhile, guests soon become impatient as things being to go a little pear shaped. While the night is the realisation of Slimane’s dreams, it is the strong female characters that take control when things go wrong; his habitual silence works as a vessel for their complex passions. Will Slimane’s plan work out?