Impressions from La Graine et le mulet

Abdellatif’s Kechiche’s La Graine et le mulet brings life and depth to the an almost ordinary story. The director draws viewers directly into the universe of this particular Maghreb community in the south of France with cinéma verité camera-work. Once Kechiche situates the audience in this intimate world, he capitalizes on the many motifs revolving around the symbolic meaning(s) of couscous.

The filming style of La Graine et le Mulet throws audiences into the lively Maghreb community. The film begins with medium and close-up shots of Sète’s harbor. Apt images to commence with: the harbor carries symbolic meaning in the context of immigration. Many Maghreb emigrants landed on these shores, including my grandparents. Furthermore, the Mediterranean links the beaches of France to the motherland. Thus, the harbor stands crucial location for Maghreb immigrants. In addition, the perceptible absence of a wide traditional establishing shot prohibits viewers from orienting themselves within the landscape. This, I believe, embeds a sense of turbulence in viewers. The hand-held camera shots also express an instability. Indeed, throughout the film, the camera fragments bodies and rooms, only gracing audiences with a full wide shot at the scene’s end. In my opinion, this imbues the film’s vision with an unexpected, lifelike quality. Yet Kechiche balances this frenzy with slower and steadier scenes featuring Slimane. Wider, smoother tracking shots accompany Slimane on his journey and reflect his character; he is quiet, calm and steady. This character also provides narrative structure and coherence to the film as we follow his motor bike visits from house to house. His visits also operate as a device introducing audiences to film’s many characters. Initially, I assumed Majid would act as the film’s protagonist (on account of his first appearance). His job as a tour guide of the harbor might suggest a corresponding role as a guide for audiences. However, from the very first scene to the last, Majid shirks his duties.

In his depiction of Slimane, the director at once associates the character with fish. Slimane works by the sea, he gifts fish to all his loved ones and he extols its nutritive virtues. In a comical scene, he even barters his alimony payments with yellow mullet, to the chagrin of his ex-wife, Souad. His job in the shipyard does not pay enough to sustain his debts, furthermore, his boss deems him too old to continue working. From the start, Kechiche establishes advancing as an unavoidable challenge and obstacle to Slimane.

If Kechiche connects Slimane with le mulet, then la graine represents the women in Slimane’s world. More than the mere noun genders justify these associations. Fish is another species entirely, an integral part of the couscous, yet still discrete. Likewise, Slimane remains a member of the family but at the same time, detached. The Sunday lunch scene exemplifies this. Family and friends gather at the table to gossip and enjoy Souad’s famous couscous. Everyone is present except Slimane and they remark upon his absence, teasing Souad to confess her everlasting love for her ex-husband.

As an aside, this long, dialogue-saturated meal and the contrasting scene that follows, exhibiting Slimane quietly eating the leftovers on his own, resonates with authenticity for me. My father’s family is Moroccan and my grandparents have been separated since my father was ten years old. For many years my grandfather stubbornly insisted on his bachelorhood and though there were several prominent women in his life, he never remarried. Now in his seventies, he lives alone in a small, rented room, much like Slimane’s, with a Siamese cat for company (in exchange for Slimane’s orange parakeet). My grandmother, on the other hand, lived in a full house with my aunts and her many grandchildren, up until her death last year. Although for decades my father and his siblings resented their father for abandoning the family, as my grandfather has aged, this anger has mellowed into pity. Every so often, a tagine is brought to my grandfather’s room and he eats it quietly without the lively company of my grandmother’s home in a scene paralleling La Graine et le mulet.

Couscous is composed of countless grains, with millions of tiny parts converging to form a whole. Likewise, the many women in Slimane’s life unite in supporting him. Like a bed of grains for fish, the women figuratively form a foundation for Slimane. Kechiche connects la graine to Slimane’s ex-wife Souad initially. During the Sunday meal, she serves her renowned dish and everyone compliments her cooking. While later on in the film, the regulars of Latifa’s hotel disparage her couscous. Each woman helps Slimane in her own unique way. As mentioned earlier, Souad the master chef cooks the food for his restaurant. Latifa, his lover, however salvages Slimane’s soirée with her couscous. His daughter along with the other female relatives assist by serving the food. By far his greatest support comes from Rym, his “daughter”, who propels the project forward professionally and distracts the impatient and ravenous crowd with her belly-dancing.

Rounding out this meal-metaphor is La Source, the restaurant or the symbolic bowl of the film. La Source ultimately unites not only the two ends of Slimane’s family but also joins the Maghreb citizens with the native French. The vessel’s color scheme (blue, red and white) corresponds to the French flag, while the restaurant offers food from the Maghreb. The North African and French merge together. Furthermore, this restaurant is an actual “source”: if successful, it will feed not Slimane but also his children and loved ones. More than that, the restaurant endows Slimane’s community with a physical place and presence within Sète, or more accurately, floating somewhere between Sète and the Maghreb.

In my opinion, the film’s end forces Slimane to rely on the help of his loved ones. His aging body fails him but his friends and family step in to save his project. I am not entirely convinced that the ending is a sad one. While some viewers may find it unsatisfactory, I think it truly reflects the nature of life. A happy conclusion might be too satisfying and it could shatter the authenticity, the reality-like quality of the film which is what I most appreciate. Through this abrupt end, Kechiche manages to feed hope for a happy one but without delivering it.