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3.6 out of 5 stars
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3.6 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 29 January 2009
Other reviewers have given the storyline, but to add - this is a story of a man content with his lot, but who suddenly finds the world has changed for him when he loses his work. He is separated from his wife and lives in a run-down hotel, where the owner is his lover and her daughter adores him as a father. Losing his job makes him wretched. He has nothing to leave to his children and he feels he is no longer a man.

He is told of a boat from which he could earn money by dismantling it, but comes to an idea to re-fit the boat to make a couscous restaurant. More than ably supported by the 'step-daughter' we go through the stages of him trying to get all the necessary permissions and bank loan, which prove difficult. His solution a party for those whom he needs to influence.

Couscous is a dish the wife of the main character excels at and she cooks it for the party, but worryingly it becomes lost!

The lover and her daughter go through an interesting dialgue, where the daughter seeks to persuade her mother to come to the party where they know they her lover's family she knows does not accept her and finally they do and eventually win through.

The film was an interesting look at the way families operate and the way things differ from what is said to you and about you. It has its weak points, but I could overlook these as I found it totally engaging, which I did not expect, as it runs 2.5 hours
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VINE VOICEon 24 December 2008
A detailed and at times very touching movie that takes us into the inner lives of immigrants in France. We share their hopes, their fears, their animosities as they seek to make a living in a host society that keeps them on the edge, at best patronising them ('at least they don't want to put up a mosque'). Each of the characters comes alive: Slimane, now too old to work, dogged by ill luck, but still determined to succeed in his new enterprise; the many strong and very vocal women who surround him; the young men with a roving eye; the elders of the community who pull together to help Slimane. Above all, this is a film about real people, employing a naturalistic dialogue that sounds improvised but clearly isn't - artistry of a very high order. My only complaint is that the film was a bit long, and spoilt by the rather gratuitous (and lengthy) dancing towards the end, somewhat reminiscent of a similar, but funnier, episode at Basil Fawlty's gourmet night.
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on 22 February 2009
As a resident of France I was a little surprised by recent article in the Guardian by Jason Solomons about the re-birth of the French film industry in the wake of the nation's first Palme D'Or winner ('Entre Les Murs'/'The Classroom') in many a year. Further citing the international popularity of `Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis' (incredibly the biggest grossing film in France, ever) the article suggested an apparent purple patch for French film that could be the legacy of the Toubon law, legislation introduced in 1994 to promote and subsidise French cultural production. All this seems a bit of a mystery over here in Grenoble, since the large part of the French films produced annually appear frankly awful, and for every curious piece like `La Graine et le mulet', `Un Conte de Noel` and `The Diving Bell and the Butterfly`, there are hundreds more advertised that seem to test the boundaries of the banal: `LOL', `Agathe Cléry' ("Elle est blanche, raciste. Elle va devenir noire..."), Cédric Klapisch's `Paris', etc. Solomons argues that "the traditional French bourgeois drama is becoming a thing of the past". Such films, he adds, "have tended to fall into two categories: the country house affair, with large family gatherings on sun-filled terraces; or the urbane Parisian comedy ... ". Yet, the vast majority of French output still seems to fall roughly into these categories. To me, France is still capable, as it has always been, of producing at least a couple of excellent films per year, but the idea that we are witnessing a renaissance that can be traced back to the Toubon law seems something of a stretch. Meanwhile in the UK, the likes of `Atonement`, `Man on Wire`, and the films of Shane Meadows have done little to alter the perception that the British film industry is a dead horse due a good flogging. Mike Leigh's return to form, `Happy-go-Lucky` was quite ignored in the UK, but received a rapturous reception abroad, especially (ironically) in France.

One of the films cited in Solomons's article as a recent must-see of French cinema is Abdel Kechiche's `La Graine et le mulet', variously retitled `Couscous' and `The Secret of the Grain' for English-speaking audiences. A neo-realist drama set in the cultural melting pot of Sète, a port town in the Languedoc region of France, the film focuses on the trials of a extended, predominantly French-Tunisian family and the efforts of a taciturn father figure to better himself and unite his fragmented loved-ones. What struck me most about `La Graine et le mulet' is the oppressive proximity of the characters' lives, rendered through a relentless use of close up. We are not merely to observe the crampt quarters of banlieu apartment living, but we are squeezed into a make-shift place at the dining room table, elbow to elbow with the characters, implicated in their squabbles, their trivial banter. The sense of confinement is heightened by the mid-summer humidity, the sweaty closeness of the weather. The use of exterior shots is limited, and the authentic interiors are imposed on the viewer with suffocating persistence, so much so that at one point a jilted wife's verbal assault on the family becomes so unbearable we will the protagonist to leave, and he does. Without spoiling the ending, it takes on an equally oppressive but more impressionistic and metaphorical quality: an endless dance to satisfy narrow minds, and a pursuit that is the very essence of futility. Set to hypnotic but slightly maddening North African folk music, these two parallel threads leave the viewer gasping for breath and situations unresolved. A naturalisitc, memorable work, whether it indicates a paradigm shift in French cinema remains to be seen.
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on 20 September 2013
Someone should tell this moviemaker to "kill his darlings". Maybe you espect a sentimental description of the immigrant filled with love and life. Still you get a piece cut out of life. Impressing
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on 10 June 2010
I bought this dvd because I am married to a Tunisian and therefore particularly interested in Tunisian culture. My husband watched it with me and it was brilliant to get his reaction to the film as well. It defintely depicts the family and community spirit of the people and how that follows them wherever they go. It is also very uplifting and emotionally charged! Very very enjoyable film, well cast and lovely cinematography all around!
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on 30 January 2009
The previous reviewer who comments that the film needs editing has it right. Were it to drop 30 or 45 mins little or nothing would be lost. As it is, we have an engaging film, both funny and poignant, casting interesting and sympathetic light on France's immigrant community. All very good, but it dissipates some of the credit by somewhat over-indulgent editing, particularly of the very long domestic meal scene and also of the opening night of the floating restaurant where the viewer waits almost as long for the film to make progress as do the diners for their couscous.

But certainly worth buying and watching.
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on 28 October 2011
One of the best films of the last decade. Very moving film about an immigrant family who try to set up a restaurant against a background of the resistance felt by many immigrants everywhere.
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on 14 February 2013
Interesting, but not as engrossing as I thought it would be. There is a lot of rather static family dialogue which does little to assist the story.
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on 25 March 2015
If overlong, this superb movie is about an assimilated culture struggling in a hostile environment against all the odds. Food serves as a means of communicating that culture down the generations as if the very preparation, the food itself and its consumption transmitted civilization. (The cuisine is also an excellent specific for homesickness.)

The ciné vérité style elicits naturalistic performances from all the performers and slowly draws you into their sometimes-fractious world. For these migrants, the restaurant business is not only a means of livelihood but also a way of keeping the links with their own culture very much open. This avoids the rootlessness of those tempted to fully embrace the indigenous culture.

The themes of family, love and work provide enough nourishment for everyone with at least one of those things.
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