SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Couscous
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French cinema is alive and well in 2008 (Ryan Werner, rejoice!), as evidenced by several high profile releases that have made their way into American theaters: Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, Laurent Cantet’s The Class, Guillame Canet’s Tell No One, and Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long. For my money, the year’s best French offering isn’t one of those titles. It’s Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain. At two-and-a-half hours, The Secret of the Grain unfolds with a Cassavetes-like disregard for conventional cinematic time; here, scenes are extended beyond their normal length to create a more lived-in and realistic air. Kechiche’s gritty fable isn’t just a refreshing antidote to the much more common, artificially optimistic cinema that treads similar narrative terrain. It is also a poignant family drama convincingly set inside France’s ever-changing cultural borders, as well as a profound universal commentary on the curse of being poor and uneducated in this, or any other, era. The Secret of the Grain gives foreign films a very good name.
At sixty years old, Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is taking stock of his life. He has just been let go from the shipyard where he has worked for over thirty years. A divorced father of three, he lives in the hotel run by his current girlfriend. Pained by the knowledge that he hasn’t provided for his children in the way that he wishes he had, Slimane decides to attempt something extreme: he wants to buy an old boat and convert it into a restaurant that will serve his ex-wife’s fish couscous as the main dish. With the help of his girlfriend’s daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), Slimane tries to turn his impossible dream into a reality.
With The Secret of the Grain, Kechiche embraces a more digressive, less streamlined approach to storytelling. This breathing room allows him to turn a potentially simple story into an incredibly rich and multi-layered one. An early scene in which Slimane’s family gathers at his ex-wife’s apartment to eat, laugh, and argue with one another plays more like the spaghetti breakfast scene in A Woman Under the Influence than the more calculated rehearsal dinner in Rachel Getting Married. If I were forced to choose a moment that best reflects naturalistic multiculturalism in 2008, this would be it. Not to mention the fact that in this particular scene, Slimane is nowhere to be found! Had Kechiche kept his eye on the more traditional prize, this scene wouldn’t even have been written, let alone made it into the final cut.
Another initial sidetrack that pays off immensely is the emergence of Rym as a main character. At first, she appears to be a fleeting presence, but gradually, Kechiche reveals his true agenda and inserts her firmly into the narrative, turning her into the film’s most important figure. Herzi’s performance is easily one of 2008’s best. It isn’t just when she expresses emotion and lashes out at her mother, either. There is a seemingly inconsequential moment when she steps onto Slimane’s decrepit boat to check it out. The way she stands there, a roll of tummy fat escaping from her shirt, Herzi isn’t just an actress playing a character in a movie. She is this young girl.
As the film builds to its anticipated climax of an opening night that will determine Slimane’s fate once and for all, Kechiche inserts a series of expected bumps-in-the-road. But at some point these bumps don’t get flattened out and one starts to wonder if the mess is ever going to be resolved. Here is where things get interesting for more masochistic viewers, but challenging for more traditional ones. Kechiche drags out this climax to a degree that makes his previously extended scenes seem clipped and abrupt. In maddening real time, he cross-cuts Slimane’s attempts to reclaim his stolen moped with Rym’s sacrificial belly dance to keep the increasingly agitated patrons distracted. Though we don’t know exactly how the situation is going to be resolved, we know that it will be. Yet this continuous back-and-forth is only belaboring the point. And then, just like that, Kechiche mercifully crushes us with an ending that we never would have predicted. That’s when it all becomes clear. Kechiche has spent the entire film crafting an extraordinarily truthful and realistic fable, and to end it any other way would be deceitful and wrong.
— Michael Tully