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An intimate epic
on 30 October 2008
I first heard of this film while staying with friends in Paris. It made a huge splash over there. They were raving about it. In France it is known as "La Graine et le Mulet", a title which far better suits this timeless parable. The story is expertly crafted and deceptively simple. Like the greatest stories, this one is archetypal.
Slimane is an old, poor and patriarchal North African divorcee. He repairs boats for a living until he's fired, at which point he decides to pursue his life-long ambition of opening a couscous restaurant on a boat, the chef being his ex-wife. Assisted by his partner's precocious daughter, Slimane sets about jumping the various hurdles that lay in his path. Out of this scenario, the writer-director wrings buckets of drama.
Essentially "Couscous" is a domestic drama, but that dry description hardly seems to do it justice. Slimane is like the titular character in "The Old Man and the Sea". He faces insurmountable odds but he quietly perseveres to the bitter end. He's no angel: he's stubborn and set in his ways. But he's all the more convincingly human for it, and you can't help but care for the man. In fact all of the characters are such engaging archetypes. This is, in no small measure, helped by the fact that all of the performances are faultlessly truthful and compelling.
This is a huge achievement by the writer/director. The camera, which never draws attention to itself, watches while the drama unfolds, it seems, totally spontaneously. It appears so improvised, but it can't be, the story is so perfectly crafted.
The storytelling is incredibly understated and the tension creeps up on you effortlessly and by surprise. In fact, I may've hit upon why the description "domestic drama" doesn't do this film justice. Because domestic dramas are so often bereft of. . . drama. And by drama I mean conflict and tension. They tend to confuse drama for sentiment. But this film, whilst it takes its time and never rushes, will slowly suck you in and have you glued to the screen until the very end.
Even if you usually don't go for this kind of thing, I would strongly recommend to anyone to give this film a shot.