Released on Blu-ray this week to capitalise on the success of his Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), Abdellatif Kechiche’s Couscous (2007) is a film similarly built upon corporeal appetites, with the majority of its runtime spent around the bustling dining table of a Tunisian immigrant family. Flooding the senses with a warm, thematically rich and appetising drama about community and cultural identity, Kechiche’s intimate portrait of migrant life in Southern France is a dish to truly savour. Slimane (Habib Boufares) is a 60-year-old Tunisian immigrant living in Séte, a port and seaside resort on the Mediterranean coast with a rich multicultural population.
Recently divorced, Slimane now lives in the hotel of his new partner. However, when he’s informed that the shipyard he’s worked at for over 30 years is about to reduce his hours, he fears for his future and the inheritance he’ll leave his children. Taking evasive action, Slimane elects to use his severance pay to turn a dilapidated fishing boat into a floating couscous restaurant, uniting his vast family and combining his ex-wives cooking skills and his step daughter’s business sense to build the restaurant from the ground up. The tight framing employed within Blue Is the Warmest Colour to illustrate his protagonist’s emotional torment is once again on show here, but this time his compounded shots emphasising the importance of family and community in this most sociable of shoreline towns.
Presenting the audience with four generations of an immigrant household, this intimate exploration of family values reflects both France’s troubled colonial past and its vibrant multicultural present against a backdrop of tantalising scenes of cooking and eating that fill the air with a palpable aroma of kindness and solidarity. A culturally diverse casserole of converging ethnicities, Kechiche unites Arabic and even Russian values to create an inimitable depiction of contemporary French society. At Couscous’ numerous gatherings we’re presented with a vibrant mix of characters, with the audience left to decipher how each of these characters are related, before quickly realising that it’s near-impossible to delineate relationships as cultural and ecumenical barriers are meaningless in this intimate family unit.
Kechiche isn’t naïve enough to merely depict life as virtuously as this, as a subsequent scene between Slimane and his bank manager demonstrates. Slimane’s applying for a business loan, and his strategy is agreed as a decent and potentially profitable one, yet sadly the help of friends and family is deemed insufficient collateral in today’s neoliberal society. A fascinating study of national and cultural identity, Kechiche’s Couscous takes the often marginalised voice of France’s adopted children and teaches us the true meaning of family and community in a world pushing harder and harder towards individualism.