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Couscous

Mixed Cinema

 

 

Just as we hear so much about the mixed economy, however dubious we may find it, is there not also a type of filmmaking that we can call ‘mixed cinema’? Some might argue that commercially oriented film – whether arthouse or populist – has always been ‘mixed’, always been made up of unavoidable compromise. We need only read of Godard’s reluctance to use Brigitte Bardot in Le Mepris, or hear David Lynch talking on the phone trying to get Jeremy Irons to appear in his latest film in the documentary Lynch, to know that even auteurs realize the importance of commercial elements. But here we are talking about a ‘mixed’ cinema in form, often made by filmmakers whose commercial aspect seems less thrust upon them than intrinsic to the populist dimensions of their work. Of his pragmatic approach to filmmaking form Ken Loach once said, “you don’t say, hang on brothers, you don’t go to the barricades until you’ve closed your split infinitives.” (MFB, March 1983) More recently he has defended his use of music in film by saying, “…I think music can sometimes steer the audience into a way of looking at a scene, as a kind of signpost along the road…” (Loach on Loach) When he says “you walk through the cities, especially the outskirts of cities, and you see that people are not having a good time”, it is this difficulty Loach films. We sense finally that form is sacrificed to content, or rather that the social aspect is at least as important as the aesthetic element.

This is really what we mean by using the term ‘mixed cinema’: the films are aesthetically pragmatic as they search out the social question. We may even say this is the essential difference between Loach and the Dardennes, who also ostensibly deal with social topics, and specifically with the socially and materially deprived in Rosetta and The Child. But we sense the Dardennes explore certain cinematic questions through their subject; Loach is more likely to be pragmatic with form to explore the social issue. So who apart from Loach falls into the category of mixed cinema? Here are a few titles, Robert Guédiguian’s  A la vie, a La Morte, Marius et Jeannette and Mario Jo and her Two Lovers; Familia Rodante, El Baño del Papa, Mondays in the Sun, Gadjo Dilo, and also Abdel Kechiche’s Blame it on Voltaire, L’esquive, and his new film Couscous. In a Cineaste interview Kechiche claims his purpose in L’Esquive was to “make a film about people who are never depicted in French cinema – people who live in the projects, in the suburbs.” When he adds “when you do see these people discussed or depicted in the French media, they’re always discussed or depicted in a caricatured way,” it resembles Loach’s insistence on avoiding wide angle lenses: “because it will also tend to push up from below the actors and distort their features and turn them into objects.” (Loach on Loach) This is an aesthetics of dignity, and central to Kechiche’s new work is to find a way of making a film that conforms to narrative expectation without robbing his characters of their immediate reality. This is perhaps what is central to mixed cinema: the acceptance of narrative conventions that engage the spectator with, at the same time, a camera approach that respects their lives.

From this perspective Couscous is an exemplary work. Though Ginette Vincendeau in Sight and Sound says the film was labelled “a masterpiece by the French press”, the enthusiastic reviews are justified less because the film is any sort of masterpiece, but that it balances the aesthetic with the commercial. As Vincendeau adds, the film hardly did the great business that Les bronzes 3 or Welcome to the Sticks managed, but an audience of 800,000 next to Rivette’s 30,000 for Don’t Touch the Axe, helps contextualize the film’s relative importance. This is a film about a racial minority that does well at the box office in a country where, as Kechiche says in the Cineaste interview, “the cultural world is still quite elite in France.”

But what we want chiefly to look at are two things. One is the strong narrative element in the film; and the other is the documentative aspect that in some ways would seem to counter the narrational. Clearly Kechiche would have a problem with the term documentative, for when Richard Porton in Cineaste asks about the documentary-like quality, Kechiche replies “it kind of bothers me that you used the word documentary”, and explains the fictional elements involved: actors, script etc. Yet when we use the term documentative, we mean no more than that the film attends to places and faces, that it will hold a shot long enough to capture something of time passing in the cinema fame. Cocteau comes to mind, and his idea that “cinema is death at work”. This respect for time in the shot, alongside Kechiche’s interest in the spaces that he films (Paris in Blame it on Voltaire, the Parisian suburbs in L’esquive, the southern town of Sète in Coucous), puts observation into the image. It is this sense of observation competing with the demands of narrative that superficially indicates they are at odds with each other, but the film’s final distinctiveness lies in their combination.

Couscous is an example of slow-paced narrative, as it exhaustively details the life of a sixty one year old father, Slimane (Habib Boufares), with two families. The first family he left for the second, with the first nevertheless still very present in his life, as he brings them fish on a regular basis from the fishermen he works alongside as he repairs boats at the harbour. He is still close to the half a dozen kids he has from this first marriage, and his first wife is still a presence, but the ‘daughter’ he is closest to, Rym (Hafsia Herzi), belongs to his lover, who owns the dingy hotel in which he has a room. He wants to do right by everybody and so when he is laid off he takes his severance pay and buys a dilapidated boat he intends to turn into a restaurant where he can employ his family.

The film proves exhausting in three main sequences that shape the film. The first sequence is where Slimane’s original family eat Sunday lunch, the second where Slimane tries to raise money for the restaurant, and the third where the restaurant has an opening night with Slimane trying to raise funds for the venture by offering a free meal to all the local dignitaries.

In each instance the viewer might be inclined to say to Kechiche that we get the point, and Vincendeau says exactly that when she questions the “crude worship of female fecundity with endless close-ups of her undulating tummy”. This is where near the end of the film Rym belly dances while the diners wait for the missing couscous to arrive. But this is closer to an example of mesmeric exhaustion similar to the penultimate scene in another of Tony  (Gadjo dilo) Gatlif’s films, Exiles, where the two leading characters lose themselves in a trance. Its purpose seems to be not so much gratuitous, as Vincendeau implies, but complexly transcendent. In its exhaustion, its repetition, it carries the gratuitous so far that it serves a different purpose altogether. For the dignitaries watching it is like the alcohol they’ve been plied with, a lazy distraction; for the musicians an awareness perhaps of their own yearning, distant desires; and for the daughters of the first family proof that Rym and her mother are ‘harlots’. In its exhaustion it allows for multiple perspectives, and so what we want to explore here is that while the film has a clear narrative progression, at the same time it seems to want to explore during this journey aspects that slow the very narrative down. There aren’t (plot) points to get so much as variables to be explored. When we mention the idea of mixed cinema, it is to illustrate how filmmakers work with narrative tension but at the same time exhaust that tension so that it becomes complex.

Let us think of another scene, one in crosscutting conjunction with Rym’s belly dance. As Slimane leaves the restaurant and takes off on his moped looking for the son who has gone off with the car, with the couscous still in the boot, so he ends up back at the housing estate where his first wife lives, and, after looking for her and finding her absent, he goes back outside and notices his moped has been stolen. Kids from the local estate have taken it, and they drive around the estate as Slimane tries to catch up. On several occasions he comes close, and they pull away from him again. From a narrative point of view this is of course a chase sequence, but as in numerous scenes in the film Kechiche wants to utilise the convention for a different end. By this stage of the film we know it is unlikely he will get the couscous back, that the diners are getting restless, and that Slimane is himself exhausted. What can a scene like this do once it decides that it is not about the chase, but a different aspect altogether? It needs to register not narrative time – the precise logistics of Slimane and the kids who’ve stolen the bike and the chance of him catching them – but character time. As Kechiche says, “Generally ongoing action  doesn’t allow you to stay on one thing too long…the beginnings of an emotion showing through on someone’s face needs screen time to happen.” The narrative tension is one thing, but the exhaustion of that narrative tension can lead to character revelation in its place. If someone claims they get the point and the film should move on; is it not the plot point that they are talking about – where Kechiche is looking to reveal character points?

What is central also is that Slimane is the least expressive character in the entire film, and this comes through especially well in another exhaustive scene where Slimane, looking for his wife, visits his Russian daughter-in-law who lives in the flat above. It is Julia’s husband who has disappeared in the car with the couscous in the boot, and he is almost certainly going off for one of his many assignations with other women. As she hysterically talks about how she feels humiliated, and that she has never felt part of the family, so Slimane absorbs her rage as if a metaphor for his own that he cannot express. It is not that the daughter-in-law is being unreasonable – her pain is very raw and very justifiable – but that it serves an ambivalent function for Slimane. It may serve as metaphor, but it also, and more especially, serves as an exemplar for the messy intricacies of his existence. As Julia insistently says how much Slimane’s family has disrespected her, it is as though Slimane doesn’t underestimate her pain; but at the same time cannot underestimate the chaotic elements in his life. He has involved his ex-wife in the venture to the chagrin of his lover, his son has driven off with the couscous, and his one attempt to do good by his entire family is turning to nothing. When Kechiche says that he wants to slow things down so that an emotion can emerge, this is never more true than in Slimane’s case. Boufares, who was a friend of Kechiche’s late father), plays the role in such a way that emotion can never rise to the surface. If individual scenes like the Sunday lunch run to relatively excessive length, then the same could be said of the film’s running time. Yet this is consistent with the nature of the character, a man whom we cannot see expressing himself, but whom we must observe closely in a number of situations to see how his being can be expressed.

Now for many of the characters here expression is action as reaction. When Julia hysterically takes her understandable anxieties and frustrations out on Slimane, she shows herself to be an actively reactive personality. The same with the most prominent of the sisters, who takes out her mood on her father, and whose husband looks like he also absorbs the punishment.  Such characters as the sister-in-law and the sister could almost be in a different film from Slimane, who cannot act out his reactions, and so if there is a final fidelity in the film to Slimane (and the film’s lead isn’t only played by Kechiche’s father’s friend; it is also dedicated to his father), it lies in the pace of the work. The exhaustion we have been talking of isn’t only a filmic issue, it is also a characterisational aspect: how to capture the exhaustion of one life in relation to the freneticism of the world around him.

Yet it might be fairest to say the film has two leading characters: not only Slimane, but also Rym. If Slimane absorbs life and gives it, if you like, its death drive, then Rym provides it with its life force. When one of the musicians says that the restaurant isn’t for Slimane, it is for the younger generation, and  that all the family members should bond over this gesture, he adds that Slimane and his own time has past. How to capture simultaneously the autumnal element of a man’s life and also the youthful exuberance? It is here again where the mixed cinematic aspect comes in. Kechiche eschews the demands of the plot at the moment he can create thematic richness and social critique. It is as if in accepting he would use the hoary device of the couscous going missing, and leading the audience to fret over its absence, he also needed to find a texture that would compensate for the ‘shallowness’ of such a trick. It also allows him to more or less conclude the film on the two leading characters, reflecting the exhaustion and exuberance of their respective age, and at the same time to show the meaningful gesture of both Slimane’s ex-wife and his lover. As the dinner party moves towards becoming a disaster, Rym keeps everybody occupied with her belly dancing, while Slimane tries to get his bike back from the kids. This is cross-cutting not as suspense building, but as thematic counterpoint. It moves from the immediacy of the daughter Zherezade-like keeping the idea of the restaurant alive with the dance, and the father seeking the couscous, to the reflective observation of the father’s mortality and the daughter’s burgeoning sexuality.

Vincendeau may find the daughter’s dance gratuitous, but it points up the difference between the two generations, and also focuses the desperate gesture of each generation that may make us wonder whether the older generation’s attempt at making a better life for the younger one is a waste of time an energy; an exhaustive, pointless effort. When Kechiche says in interviews that he wants to pay homage to a generation that has worked hard to give the younger generation a chance, this contrasting scene indicates how much has gone into that effort and equally how much still has to be done. As Rym becomes exotic other, an idle, mildly lascivious distraction for the local dignitaries, and as the father seems on the the point of collapse, the suspense that the narrative device offers becomes insignificant next to the weight of lives lived, of generations explored.  Shortly before the end of the film we realize why his ex wife isn’t in – we recall that she’s gone to give a helping of the fish and vegetable couscous to the homeless as we see her offering food to someone on the street – and we see his lover carrying a huge pan of couscous onto the boat. Here the cross generational and the cultural completely superimpose themselves on the suspenseful. The hoary device of narrative suspense gives way to the thematically reflective as we no longer care about the suspense of the couscous, but instead the humanity of the family.

This we might assume is at the heart of mixed cinema, where the filmmakers will utilise the elements of narrative to reconfigures them for thematic effect, for a richer pay off than the readily narrational. Yet maybe we still need to differentiate mixed cinema from what we could call curdled cinema – Loach’s Sweet Sixteen from Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty, El Bano del Papa from Billy Elliot. Obviously one offers a high degree of subjective interpretation here, but does the film exploit the characters and situations for narrative through lines, or use and then discard narrative through lines for exploratory purposes? In Both The Full Monty and Billy Eliot the story is pushed so determinedly and the feel-good factor so insistent, that the complexity of the potential theme is never allowed to surface. Though each film predicates itself on realism – the collapse of Sheffield’s steel industry in The Full Monty; the 1984 mining strike in Billy Elliot – each film quickly sacrifices realist fidelity to exaggerated plot lines. In one scene in The Full Monty all the characters are signing on the dole at the same time, and the film has them singing and dancing along to the music playing in the social security office. In Billy Eliot the titular character’s brother is a striking miner who is presented as a small minded small-towner until he finally realizes the errors of his macho ways and sides with Billy’s ambitions to become a ballet dancer. Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide may have echoed general critical opinion when saying of The Full Monty that it is “never mean-spirited”, and of the latter “a feel-good movie in the very best sense”, but what about the presentation of a character in The Full Monty who can’t count and who wraps cellophane round his stomach as he eats a Mars bar and assumes that he’ll still be able to lose weight – both scenes played for laughs? Or that the miner’s strike (one of the most important British strikes of the last fifty years) becomes a parochial backdrop for Billy’s ambitions? In each instance mixed cinema becomes curdled; the audience pay off proves more important than the thematic and social exploration.

In both Sweet Sixteen and El Bano del Papa the films may be perceived as nothing more than pessimistic versions of what The Full Monty and Billy Elliot offer in optimistic form: all four films focus on characters trying to improve their lives, and setting themselves a goal they hope to achieve. But where the goal is readily achievable to the detriment of the milieu in The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, in Sweet Sixteen and El Bano del Papa, the characters have to realize the limitations of self-oriented action. In Sweet Sixteen the boy’s determination to buy accommodation for his mum when she gets out of prison is hampered by the love she feels for her feckless lover, the boy’s involvement in drugs, and his relationship with his best friend who proves a liability. In El Bano del Papa, the toilet the father builds for the pope’s visit to the town (believing the town will have many visitors looking to use the toilet) depends not only on the sweat of the father’s brow, but also on the hope that as many people will pass through the town as he needs.

This is mixed cinema that refuses to sacrifice milieu realism to goal-oriented behaviour. The goal-orientation is important, and gives the film narrative drive, but not to the detriment of understanding the socio-political complexity of the situation. There is a beautiful moment in El Bano del Papa where the filmmakers work up a high degree of suspense only to deepen their film in the undermining of it. As we’ve been following the central character determined to make it back to the town with the toilet in time for the pope’s visit, so the film cuts to the daughter noticing her father on television rushing through the streets with the toilet over his shoulder. We move from the immediacy of identification to the pathos of sympathetic observation. The film deepens its socio-political purpose as it ‘undermines’ its narrative drive. It is what mixed cinema often achieves and what curdled cinema refuses in its quest for audience gratification.

Before concluding, let us return to Couscous. Kechiche has intriguingly proposed that he wants to adopt a rhythm “closer to that of a novel”. In determining to explore “the simple pleasure of contemplating the events in the daily life of a family”, Kechiche says he needed to avoid the conventions of “the action film”. (Sight and Sound). What he means by the action film here is presumably the way we have been describing films where the narrative through-line is more important than the socially exploratory one, and Kechiche’s desire to capture the events in the daily life of a family means that the through-line needed to be sacrificed to it. Yet we might claim this is what happens in most mixed cinema films where the complexity of the life depicted swallows up the narrative momentum. In curdled cinema the filmmaker works with a form of socio-political denial as the through-line becomes paramount, but in mixed cinema the through-line is dropped when it leads to socio-political over-simplification. If Sweet Sixteen showed the boy making good in Glasgow by selling something other than drugs, if El Bano del Papa focused on the father’s success with the toilet, and if in Couscous the restaurant became a hit, then the optimistic plot logic would be satisfied, but the wider implications ignored. When Kechiche shows Rym belly dancing, the father clearly on the point of collapse chasing after the boys, his ex-wife feeding the homeless and his lover carrying the couscous, the rejection of narrative through-lines releases thematic texture. The father’s attempt to bring the community together with a business venture may fail, but we as viewers get a better sense of the complexity of the community through the venture’s failure. One of the problems often with narrative optimism is that it simplifies the myriad individual psychologies to optimistic end goals. In Billy Elliot the potential intricacies of the father and brother’s thinking in relation to Billy’s life evaporates for the purposes of the feel-good ending. It is like a variation on Tolstoy’s idea at the beginning of Anna Karenina that “all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.”

Do optimistic endings often show the family members alike; pessimistic endings illustrating much more individuation? When Kechiche says he wants to explore the events in the daily life of a family, we can see why pessimism would be more useful than optimism. Thus we are not insisting on pessimistic endings, per se, but in a conclusion that can maximise complexity, and that often pessimistic endings are more thematically useful than optimistic ones. Kechiche could have ended with a successful evening and with the guests willing to contribute to Slimane’s new venture. But such an approach would surely have resembled the sort of deliberately (and consequently complex) curdled optimism of a Mike Leigh film, where in Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies and even Happy Go Lucky there has been so much pain and anguish explored and expressed that to contain it all within the parameters of an optimistic conclusion leaves us feeling the pessimism in the wings. Perhaps taking into account Tolstoy’s comment, the complexity of the situation leaves the viewer unable to accept optimism if the filmmaker has spent so much time seeking out the singularity of the family. What happens is that the questions the film asks are much bigger than the ones an optimistic narrative form can answer. To celebrate the family in all its diversity is to accept a narrative in all its multiplicity, and where optimism can ever really only be a strand. By trying to be true to the convolutions and intricacies of an extended family’s lives, Couscous, we can say, wonderfully offers a narrative after its own fashion, but a ‘fashion’ that can help counter numerous examples of curdled optimism.

 

©Tony McKibbin