Couscous vs croissant
Couscous, the North African semolina dish, was voted France’s second favourite meal last year, beating steak frites and boeuf bourguignon. And couscous could now provide the surprise recipe that saves France from cultural decline.
Paris is reeling from Time magazine’s recent verdict that French culture is dead. But critics have been lifted out of their depression this week by an epic film about a Tunisian immigrant family’s couscous dinners.
La Graine et le Mulet, which loosely means fish couscous, has been hailed as a social and political masterpiece and the filmmakers hope it will force an inward-looking French establishment to open up to the creative talent of its second-generation immigrants.
The couscous saga has already won a standing ovation at the Venice film festival and taken home three prizes. Last month it opened to applause in France and won the Louis Delluc prize for film of the year.
The film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, who grew up on a municipal housing project in Nice with his builder father and Tunisian family, has been compared to Truffaut and the Italian neo-realists.
‘He’s the major auteur that France has been waiting for,” announced the culture bible, Les Inrockuptibles.
The film tells the story of 61-year-old Slimane, a boat-builder in the southern French port of Sete, who involves his vast extended family in an epic project to set up a couscous restaurant. Its often comic, lengthy scenes in French Mediterranean tower blocks are reminiscent of British kitchen-sink dramas. The actors are mostly amateurs. Slimane is played by a man who once worked with the director’s father on Nice construction sites.
The actors were made to fast before filming so they would be hungry during the couscous scenes.
‘At last, we’ve found our Ken Loach,” announced Paris Match last month. Didier Peron, the film critic of Liberation, said: ‘This is the great political film we were missing. It both takes your breath away and suddenly makes the air around you easier to breathe.”
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, served vegetable couscous to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gadafy, in Paris last month. But Sarkozy’s likening of troublemakers on immigrant estates to ‘scum” still rankles with France’s North African community, including the film’s director.
There is a feeling among observers that the artistic energy of the housing projects is going untapped, despite the success of the young writer Faiza Guene, whose debut novel about teenagers in the tower blocks turned out to be an international hit.
‘As long as France refuses to realise how lucky it is to have a young population so rich and diverse, as long as it insists on seeing that diversity and difference as a problem, France will miss out an the abundance of energy, culture and possibility,” Kechiche warned recently.
His earlier film, about France’s suburban housing estates, L’Esquive, earned him four Cesars, the equivalent of the Oscar, and sold about 400 000 cinema tickets. Now he hopes to reach a wider audience, particularly on screens near the estates where his characters live.
Asked about his brand of realism, Kechiche said he had simply set out to show French descendants of North African immigrants as they really were ‘at a time when, unfortunately, they’re being portrayed as stereotypes”.—