Abdellatif Kechiche's "Couscous"

Envy and Ephoria

The French film "Couscous" is an excellent example of how artistic brilliance can serve the cause of integration. And it also shows the vast possibilities open to European cinema. Amin Farzanefar has seen the film

​​Slimane, a dockworker in the southern French city of Sète, is suddenly fired. He is too old and there just isn't any more work. End of story, finished. Yet, instead of giving up, the 61-year-old decides to embark on a fresh start together with his stepdaughter Rym. They plan on transforming an old fishing boat into a restaurant and serve French diners a rare specialty – couscous with fish.

And so Slimane begins a marathon run through bureaucratic red tape along with his extended family – his old mates, his envious sons Madjid and Hamid, and his sceptical lover Latifa. And Slimane's ex-wife is supposed to cook the couscous.

The whole panoply of cinematographic emotions is laid out in typical Mediterranean excess – the family experiences everything from enthusiasm and euphoria to envy and pessimism in the process of transforming the old rust bucket into a gourmet restaurant.

This family drama has caused quite a stir at film festivals and has been awarded with a number of prizes. Yet, "Couscous" is more than just another multicultural drama.

French Bollywood

"Couscous" could, without much ado, be taken as a social drama about a Maghreb émigré suddenly finding himself on edge of society and whose dream of starting his own business is thwarted by French bureaucracy. That Abdellatif Kechiche, the Tunisian-born director, manages to broach such clichés without flogging them to death is due to many factors:

First of all, he takes his characters seriously instead of making them marionettes for his message. And despite their misery, they still also manage to enjoy themselves in song, dance, cooking, in gossip, discussions, and arguments.

​​"Couscous" is an altogether sensual experience, yet without opulent sets, studio spotlights, or orchestral soundtrack. On top of this, Abdellatif Kechiche – director of "Couscous" – conveys the message that life is much more complex than what is found in any film script.

With a length of almost three hours, "Couscous" serves up enough sub-plots for a whole Bollywood drama. Just as in real life, many conflicts peter out along the way, like the hysterical outbursts of Slimane's overburdened daughter.

Kechiche uses this abundance of material to create scenes of intensity and directness that one usually only expects to find in the theatre. Nevertheless, the filmmaker, who began his career as a theatre director, remains true to cinema and film narration. With close-ups, hand-held cameras, and sharp editing, he literally draws the viewer right in to this extended family.

Award-winning experiment

When Rym attempts to convince her obstinate mother to attend the opening of the restaurant, the scene's ten-minute length is still not enough to express all of its latent nuances.

​​In recognition of his contribution to European integration, Abdel Kechiche, together with Fatih Akin, was awarded Charlemagne Medal for European Media.

In fact, comparisons with the exceptional German-Turkish director are fair. Similar to the 33-year-old Hamburg director, the 47-year-old Kechiche continuously explores his own first-hand experiences in his films – his emigrant background, the Tunisian family, and the southern French coast where his family settled in 1966.

Yet, while Akin usually takes genre models – gangster films, road movie, and melodramas – as his starting point, and the strength of his films is based on the tension between social realism and the narrative structure of cinema, Kechiche prefers a radical experimental approach.

This is courageous, as art house cinema is increasingly finding its niche on television, where the topic of migration is handled in the tried-and-true fashion – with runaway daughters, ghetto kids with no direction, and fatuous döner kebab buffoons.

Ghetto and poetry

Even in his first film, the emigrant story "Le Faute a Voltaire" (2000), the asylum seekers were not portrayed as a community of sufferers, but as brash and free individuals. The over two-hour-long film also displayed the risks of an unconventional approach to cinema. The sheer amount of improvisation often meant that the director lost control of the actors and script.

Abdellatif Kechiche (private copyright)
The Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche adheres to a radical experimental approach in his films

​​In contrast, his subsequent film "L'Esquive" (2003) was justifiably awarded with four Césars, including those for best film and script. Here, young people from the Banlieus perform a theatre piece by Mariveaux together. In the process, the various liaisons and jealousies leap out into reality and subsequently affect the rehearsals.

Kechiche thereby found his main principle – the link between the ghetto and poetry, between everyday life and art. The Arab Frenchman is constantly searching his milieu for the fate of the individual, the warm nest of the neighbourhood, and the poetry of the moment.

This all tends to recall old-fashioned Italian Neorealism, while at the same time pointing the way ahead. In "L'Esquive," French kids shout out "Inchallah" and "Wallah," taking over the jargon of their Arab friends. This reflects a completely new and individual way of dealing with emigrant realities. Couscous for everyone then!

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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