22 April 2021

Abdellatif Kechchiche's La Graine et le mulet | Couscous | The Secret of the Grain (2008)

As usual with translations, my reaction to La Graine et le mulet being titled Couscous (in English) and The Secret of the Grain (in American English) is negative: if people really enjoy French films, why shouldn't they have them well translated, or not translated at all? The name Couscous is sort of OK I suppose, but The Secret of the Grain? What planet are we on? La Graine certainly refers to couscous, but le mulet refers to the fish mullet, the 'couscous au poisson' meal, so why not try and make that clear? Translations exasperate me, which is why I listen to French films in the original language without subtitles: all right, perhaps I'm privileged to be able to do so, but misinterpretations or misunderstandings abound where French culture is concerned. Enough.

Similarly – oddly, by coincidence, or entirely by design, as with Kechiche's L'Equive – this movie is full of physical or verbal avoidances, distractions, swerves, dodges, call them what you will. Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is a sixty-one-year-old ship repairer who has worked for the same company for 35 years, although he's obviously ageing and redundancy calls. He no longer lives with his wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) but with Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), who treats him more as a daughter than a step-daughter. But Slimane also has two biological daughters – Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani) and Karima (Faridah Benkhetache) – and two biological sons – Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem), and Majid (Sami Zitouni). And extended family gatherings around the table are the norm, a time of happiness no matter what may be behind the scenes.

Majid is first encountered on a tourist trip around Sète, where this film is mainly set: he screws a woman on the trip, leaving another announcer to make do as best she can. This is the egotistal Majid, who towards the end of the film will leave everyone in a kind a limbo, a situation of avoidance, which perhaps leads to the death of his father. Mercifully, we don't know.

Being made redundant as a ship restorer, Slimane has avoided losing face by setting up a really odd retirement plan: creating a restaurant on the harbour of Sète in a restored ship, serving couscous au poisson as its speciality. But on the grand opening ceremony there's no couscous because Slimane's son Madji – the one with the wandering cock – has seen a potentially very compromising situation with a woman he's screwed, so he avoids things and drives away: with the cooked couscous in the boot. What to do? Get the guests pissed while they wait (a clever avoidance mechanism) and as for Rhm belly-dancing for ages to cause distraction, well: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and obviously Abdellatif Kechichice had his reasons to get Hafsia Herzi to put on so much weight, but I still loved the film.

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