La Graine et le Mulet (Couscous with Mullet): Food and Family Politics

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Couscous with Mullet, or “The Secret of the Grain” is a movie of Tunisian born director Abdellatif Kechiche. I love this movie and this is why I am writing this article.

Let me start by introducing the characters of the movie

Slimane is a 60 year old dock worker who has been fired and is divorced from his wife Souad. He lives at the hotel of his partner, Latifa.

Souad is the ex-wife of Slimane and mother of their children. Most importantly, she is the cook of the magnificent “Couscous with Mulet”, the dish that permeates the film like a music score.

Latifa is the hotel owner and partner of Slimane, and mother of Rym. She has not come to terms with the fact that Slimane’s ex-wife and children do not accept her as a member of the family.

Rym is Latifa’s daughter and is the key person of the movie after Slimane.

The plot goes like this.

Slimane has a dream to open a couscous restaurant, serving his ex-wife’s recipe of couscous with mullet (kephalos in Greek). He buys an old tugboat and transforms it into a floating restaurant.

Rym supports Slimane in making his dream come true. She goes with him to the Bank, to the Local Authority, trying to get all the permits, the loans, and when the opening night comes, she fights (and succeeds) to convince her mother to go to the restaurant.

There is however drama in the opening night, far more serious than Latifa’s hesitation.

The couscous that Souad has cooked disappears. It is in the boot of Slimane’s son car, but never made it to the restaurant. It is still in the boot, and far away. The crowd gathered in the restaurant become edgy. They are hungry, they want their food. And at this point, Rym dances one of the most exhilarating belly dances I have ever seen. Take a look at this video clip.

While Rym is dancing her heart away, Latifa is preparing another pot of couscous to replace the one that disappeared.

What I saw in the movie

This is a movie about food and the politics of the family. It is only to be expected that food is intricately related to the politics of the family, as it is one of the fundamental elements in our lifes. Yet it is seldom that it emerges as such in cinema or other arts.

Lets start with the ex-wife and Slimane’s children. They all have a regular Sunday lunch, and Souad cooks her famous couscous with mullet. We are talking about a broken family that tries to hang together by the skin of its teeth. Disintegration and breakage is not only between father and mother. One of the sons, married to a Russian immigrant, with a baby recently born, is having an affair with another woman in a rather obvious and provocative way. In a very tense scene towards the end of the movie, the Russian wife openly accuses Souad as the supporter of her son in his amorous adventures outside his marriage.  This accusation is thrown in the face of Slimane, who appears to be the originator of the path to infidelity and break of the family. Isn’t he the one who now lives with another woman, isn’t he the one who is outside the family? Isn’t it natural for the son to copy the father’s behavior?

Over the Sunday couscous, the family would appear to be united again, even at the cost of pretending to be so. The same couscous is however the kernel of Slimane’s new life as a restaurant owner. And Slimane is not the cook, Souad is. The couscous is the material that even temporarily unites the family, it is the – potentially – only solid ground on which the family can step on. The dish exists and will continue to exist because it brings with it the memories of the motherland, and therefore the motherland itself.  The movie takes place in a small town in the south of France, with a large community of immigrants from North Africa. All the leading characters are either North African or Russian (the son’s wife).

There is another layer in the movie: who is the leading character? Is Slimane the protagonist? I am not so sure. He opens the restaurant, but the cook of the signature dish is his ex-wife, Souad. And when the crisis of the missing couscous breaks out, it is not Slimane who resolves it, but Rym and Latifa. Slimane appears to be willing but weak. The force of nature named Rym is the real protagonist of the movie, and a very charming one. She loves, she demands, she argues, she wants what she considers to be hers. And she desperately tries to support Slimane. She desperately wants a father, and a man for her mother.

I could go on, but want to stop here. I hope that I have given enough motives to those who have not seen the movie to go and see it. As for the ones who have already seen it, this is an invitation to rethink the movie, and/or see it again. Every good movie deserves to be seen at least twice.

The Awards

César 2008

As you may have already spotted on the poster, the film won 4 Cesar awards (the French equivalent to the Oscar)

  • Best Director – Meilleur réalisateur – Abdellatif Kechiche pour La graine et le mulet
  • Best film – Meilleur film – La graine et le mulet, réalisé par Abdellatif Kechiche, produit par Claude Berri
  • Most promising actress – Meilleur espoir féminin Hafsia Herzi dans La graine et le mulet
  • Most original scenario – Meilleur scénario original- Abdellatif Kechiche pour La graine et le mule

64 Mostra Internazionale d’ Arte Cinematografica di Venezia

In the 64th Film Festival of Venice, the film won two awards.

  • Silver Lion – Leone d’ Argento – Gran Premio della Giuria – Cous Cous
  • Award – Premio Marcello Mastroiani for a new actor/actress – ad un attore o attrice emergente  – Hafsia Herzi

2 COMMENTS

  1. Ελπιζω να βρει το δρομο της σε κανενα κουλτουρε τζοιντ εδω που συνηθως ευδοκιμουν οι υπερπαραγωγες . Ενα παρομοιο πιατο ειχα δοκιμασει στη Σικελια, οπου ως γνωστον η επιδραση της τυνησιακης κουζινας ειναι εμφανης!

    • να το ιδεις Δεσποιναριον, αξιζει και θα σου αρεσει, ειμαι σιγουρος!!!!! τι μου θυμισες τωρα!!!!!την απαγωγη της καναδεζας και τα τρεχαματα στην ορεινη σικελια, εν των μεσω της νυκτος!!!!!

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