Although his debut film La Faute à Voltaire didn’t go unnoticed, winning a Golden Lion in Venice in 2000 for Best Film by a New Director, it was Abdellatif Kechiche’s loud and gritty examination of the social repression endured by impoverished youths in a Parisian high-rise suburb in L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance) that established the young French director of Tunisian origin as an fresh and exciting figure in French cinema. Coming at a time when the subject of the banlieues was a hot and widely questioned topic, Kechiche’s direct confrontation of the underlying historical, educational and social attitudes that would lead to the problems of the present day ensured that L’Esquive was widely acclaimed in the press and winner of several major awards at the Césars in 2005 including Best Film, beating out popular big studio features like Les Choristes and A Very Long Engagement. More closely related to his own background centred on a French-Arab family of Maghreb origin in a large port in the south of France, and originally intended to be his first film, by the time La Graine et le Mulet (retitled in the UK reasonably meaningfully as Couscous) was released in late 2007, acclaim was unanimous for Kechiche’s independent, proletarian viewpoint not commonly seen in French cinema.
Presumably then, the French public and critics, addicted to a diet of US blockbusters and TV mega-series, have never seen or had a French equivalent of Eastenders, because Kechiche’s work, with its banal domesticity, tedious arguments and heavy-handed plotting is barely more incisively realistic about modern social issues than the average TV soap opera. The endless, banal bickering of kids in the Parisian suburbs of L’Esquive is reprised in Couscous in the form of stultifying "realistic" family disputes over business, domestic and relationship affairs with unwatchable extended scenes of crying, yelling, bitching and bickering, all strung out over the thinnest of plots. The story is centred on Slimane (Habib Boufares), a 62 year-old shipyard worker who finds he no longer has a viable position in the company’s new working patterns. Taking his severance pay, he intends to set up his own restaurant on a boat, specialising in fish couscous. Without proper funding or a business case, getting the necessary funding and approval from the authorities seems unlikely, but Slimane hopes that he can put aside differences between his family with his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) and his new partner and step-daughter, and with their assistance make a success of the business. Stretched out to over two and a half hours however, there are a lot of dreary family affairs to get through. As Slimane’s step-daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi) puts it referring to his ex-wife Souad, all she does is "wag her tongue and cooks" – the rest of the family mainly just wag their tongues.
To be fair there’s a little more to Couscous than that and there is clearly a more considered approach to the subject and its underlying meaning, the film touching on racism and intolerance as it is lived and enacted (bitter, bitchy and cliquey) rather than presenting it as an "issue". In the same way however that the director contrives to have a group of ghetto kids in L’Esquive rehearsing Marivaux’s Games of Love and Chance for a school play, using this to show how social attitudes are formed and highlight the contrasts in society through the variations in the language spoken, so too the underlying concept in Couscous is rather too academic, obtrusive and heavy-handed to carry any real conviction. The film’s French title La Graine et le Mulet (literally The Grain and the Mule, as well as being the ingredients of fish couscous if you take mulet to mean mullet), comes from a story originally meant to be related in the film but eventually left-out, where a farmer starts reducing the feed he gives to his mule by a single grain a day and sees no noticeable lessening of its activity until eventually one day the mule suddenly drops dead. What remains of this allegory in the film is the notion of food and family, alimentary nourishment and sustenance, both of which enshrine the notion of love and are necessary for Slimane to get through the difficulties, obstacles, prejudices and hardships that he is unable to confront on his own. Even here though, there can be a "bad seed" that can upset the balance.
Conceptually, this is fine, if rather heavy-handed and over-emphasised in the endless scenes of family members gathered around a large dinner table shovelling couscous into their mouths in zoomed close-ups, hammering the point home further through the expositional dialogue and such overt symbolism as Slimane having a bird in a cage that won’t sing (seriously). But the director is misguided in his trust that these heart-warming scenes of togetherness or even the confrontational scenes of family dispute and disagreement will be as fascinating or meaningful for the viewer as they are to him, particularly when they are strung out to great length and delivered by largely non-professional actors. Couscous certainly captures moments of real life as it is lived by ordinary people, as in the proof of love that comes from Rym and the other members of Slimane’s extended family in the final scenes, but here just as elsewhere it’s undercut with the banality and inconsequentiality of the domestic soap-opera dramatics.
Couscous is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Couscous transfers well to DVD with tones that if they don’t look perfect are at least representative of what you’d expect the film to look like when filmed on Digital High Definition cameras. Sharpness is therefore not perfect and skin tones look a little smeary and discoloured in places – showing up quite evidently since the majority of the film is focussed in extreme close-up on faces - but by and large the film looks well, with no evident edge-enhancement or macro-blocking issues.
Two soundtrack options are included – Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 – and both are just fine, dialogue and music score coming across clearly and strongly. Certain crowd scenes evidently benefit from the wider surround mix, but either will be more than adequate.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional.
In addition to the film’s Trailer (2:06), presented anamorphically and looking reasonably good in edited-down form, the main extra feature is the usual excellent Artificial Eye interview with the director. Kechiche always comes across as serious and intense in his interviews and even more so in person. The Interview with Abdellatif Kechiche (23:51) here covers his initial impetus for making films and his inspiration for Couscous, which was evidently his own family and his father. He talks about his working methods, striking a balance between rigorous rehearsals, rigid scripting and allowing the actors room to be flexible. In this respect he also talks about casting of Habib Boufares and also about getting the right location for the film. This all provides a good and comprehensive overview of where the director is coming from. The only other features on the disc are other Artificial Eye Trailers.
The French film academy and all the national critics were unanimous in their effusive admiration of Couscous and in their consideration of Abdellatif Kechiche as the future of French independent cinema. With French cinema, like most world cinema, ever more under constraints to be commercial and appeal to the masses, that might well be the case, Kechiche indeed giving a voice to the real life on the streets and provinces of France that are rarely represented in its cinema. Personally however I find comparisons to Jean Renoir and Maurice Pialat far from credible and feel that not only do his films lack any real artistry above the level of soap opera, but the endless bickering and banal conversations just give me a headache. If you’re sufficiently inclined to explore this yourself however and make your own mind up, Artificial Eye’s DVD presentation is excellent, with their customary high quality transfer and a relevant, informative interview with the director.