Couscous (15)

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The Independent Culture

Couscous is a slice-of-life drama so generously served up that stockpot-of-life is nearer the mark. Set in the southern French port of Sète, this film by Tunisian-born director Abdel Kechiche focuses on Slimane (Habib Boufares), a 61-year-old boatyard worker who decides to start a new career and transform a rusty tub into a floating couscous parlour. The premise is so mundane that it would be easy not to care, but we do: all the more so as, in an inspired stroke, Kechiche makes his hero not a charismatic optimist but a sourpuss who looks as if he'd be more at ease as a funeral director than a restaurateur.

While Slimane is the drama's taciturn hub, the film sprawls expansively around him, introducing us to his extended North African family: ex-wife, grown-up children, assorted musicians and café philosophers, as well as his new girlfriend and her teenage daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). While Couscous is an ensemble piece, tremendous newcomer Herzi makes the film her own in two extraordinary scenes. First Rym lovingly but abrasively hectors her mother into attending the restaurant launch; then she does a show-stopping belly dance. Here's a girl, we instantly realise, who knows she can conquer the world with just a flash of armpit.

Kechiche has a way of shooting dialogue in enclosed spaces – with adults arguing and kids screaming – that makes you feel part of the family, even if you have no idea who everyone is. Few directors have the knack of making conversation scenes crackle like this, the talk flowing relentlessly from all directions at once.

Open-ended and (seemingly) chaotic, mixing comedy and tragedy, Couscous has been showered with awards in France, and not surprisingly. It's a North African update of the Jean Renoir tradition of realism – a film about people being themselves, which is to say, being far from perfect or always likeable, but simply irreducible in their energy. Couscous may not be a foodie film, but a feast it certainly is.