Slimane has worked 35 years in the shipyards in Sète, France. He’s worn down, can’t keep up with the new schedules, and he’s laid off. His dream has always been to open a restaurant, and hey, in a corner of the docks there’s a rusting hulk about to be dismantled for scrap. He buys it – it’s going to be his restaurant.
Slimane wants to regain his dignity – to make up, as a friend says, for the humiliations and suffering of their life in France, and to give his children something, to show it wasn’t all for nothing.
It’s a long film, and the ending unconvincing, but it’s worth it for the complexity of social relationships. Slimane is divorced and has his extended first family – two sons and four daughters – but he now lives with a girlfriend and stepdaughter, who run a bar and hotel. Hafsia Herzi is wonderful as his stepdaughter Rym – as committed, passionate and animated as Slimane is ground-down and withdrawn. Alice Houri, too, in a scene berating Slimane for his family’s collusion in her husband’s playing around, is so raw that her distress is discomforting.
Kechiche, like Fatih Akin, the Turkish-German film-maker, shows us how the lives of migrants and their children straddle cultures, and, like Akin’s Head-On, Couscous is passionate and earthy. Kechiche doesn’t dismantle this poor tired migrant’s dream, but shows how people work together; and how women, sometimes against expectation and stereotype hold things together.