The Secret of the Grain: No Secrets

On Film / Essays — Jul 27, 2010

Americans got The Secret of the Grain. In France, they got La graine et le mulet (The Grain and the Mullet)—basically, “Couscous and Fish.” Depending on whose table you eat dinner at, the French title can seem as elemental as “Water and Air” or “Heaven and Earth.” If the movie was a tough sell in the United States, it was not because of poor distribution or because no one wanted to see two and a half hours of French Arabs eating and talking and eating and crying and eating and dancing but because that title made the movie sound like a documentary about the keys to harvesting wheat. This bursting drama is something else entirely, a gripping, multigenerational saga that brings you as close as you could hope to get to an aching, dreaming extended family. It begins like Ken Loach and ends like Tolstoy (and thus clearly deserves a title that puts you somewhere other than aisle seven at Trader Joe’s).

But The Secret of the Grain it is. And what a primal sneak attack. You couldn’t know from the serene opening minutes, set on a tourist ferry headed toward the French resort town of Sète (whose screen lineage dates back at least as far as Agnès Varda’s 1956 La Pointe Courte), that we’d end up where we do 150 or so intense minutes later, engulfed in bad news that feels like good news. Locationally, it’s not far from where we began. Emotionally, it’s another universe.

Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche was born in Tunisia in 1960 and, at six, moved to Nice with his family. Later, he did stage work and studied acting. This training accounts for the vivid naturalism of the performances in his movies, which all take as their subject the Arab immigrant experience in France. With all due respect to the actorly achievements in the films of De Sica, the Dardennes, and the other great realists, the men and women in The Secret of the Grain talk to one another with more ease and fire and exasperation than is usual in realist films, which even at their most devastating can be predicated on an emotional austerity. This is not an imitation of life—it’s the rumbling real thing.

Kechiche’s three movies thus far—Blame It on Voltaire (2000) and L’esquive (2003, better known in the U.S. by its glibber title, Games of Love and Chance) were his first two—sidestep overt confrontation. The woe, racism, loneliness, rage, and indictment we’re used to seeing in the films of sympathetic European filmmakers exist here, but the frothing at the mouth in, say, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine or the intellectual seething in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown are upended. Identity is nearly always political, but Kechiche is daring and imaginative enough to show us what can happen when it’s ever so slightly depoliticized. The amazing trick of Blame It on Voltaire is the way in which its protagonist, Jallel (Sami Bouajila), a Tunisian immigrant pretending to be an Algerian political refugee for the asylum, feels less foreign in France than many of the Parisians he meets. The Secret of the Grain plays that disjunction along the fault lines of class and generation, yet Kechiche resists staging an earthquake. The movie is essentially a portrait of an extended family whose dynamics are steadily reframed in a collection of long, eventful scenes.

For the cast of The Secret of the Grain, this provides an authentic relief: they get to play actual people—not symbols, inmates, nannies, or the undignified other. And their concerns have little to do with overt oppression or xenophobia. They have dreams and talents and passions—and a taste for the ruminative anecdote. (Some of those dreams languish, but they’re there all the same.) Their Frenchness is itself complex. Kechiche probably suffered the hassles and humiliations that come with being brown in a white world. But what’s so refreshing (and necessary) about each of his films is how comfortable his characters are in their own skin. The Secret of the Grain is full of interracial couples and mixed babies. The lack of societal exclamation is remarkable. See, the sky doesn’t fall.

As the film opens, Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is fired from the shipbuilding job he’s had for forty years. It’s a demonstration of Kechiche’s artistic priorities that Slimane’s firing is for the crime of care and thoroughness. He wants to make art; his boss wants him to make product—the difference is irreconcilable. Rather than do nothing, Slimane, who moved to France from North Africa, decides to open a restaurant on an otherwise useless old boat he’s inherited. That endeavor provides the movie with the narrative trunk from which its joys and sorrows sprout. Slimane is aged and flawed, and in the way that old men want to leave behind memorials that right their mistakes, he sees this restaurant as a legacy for his four children, some of whom hold out hope that he will get back together with their mother. His most engaged business partner is Rym (Hafsia Herzi), the twenty-year-old daughter of his current girlfriend and landlord, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui). Rym’s not much older than Slimane’s two youngest kids (in one of the movie’s many nicely offhanded motifs, the younger son quietly lusts after her while the daughters roll their eyes), but it’s she who makes the presentations for the various loans and licenses required to pull the venture off.

The launch of the restaurant becomes a family affair in which the two sides of Slimane’s life reluctantly mix. Latifa is miffed that Slimane would center his establishment around the recipes of his intimidating, short-tempered ex-wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk). In Slimane’s defense, Latifa is rumored to be an atrocious cook—Souad’s couscous and fish are legendary.

Narrative in this film is secondary to human nature. These are characters who appear to behave and emote independently of what Kechiche has specified on the page. He directs with a grand transparency, and his movie thrives at the cross streets of realism and melodrama. The film alternates between long scenes of entrepreneurial process (an attempt to explain, for instance, to various bureaucrats how great it would be for Sète to have authentic North African cuisine) and even longer dinner sequences, featuring most of the Beiji clan, that deepen the character dynamics in about a dozen ways. These passages are lengthy, but they’re constantly alive. Take the first weekly dinner: unofficially, it begins when Slimane, freshly sacked, drops off the fish at Souad’s. Things get cooking later with the arrival of a son here and some friends there, until every seat at the big table is taken. Before the food is served, the conversation tends toward the mundane (diapers!); during dinner, it moves on to the divine, such as the blatantly sexual joys of the Arabic language. There is also the occasional urgent sidebar. The eldest daughter, Karima (Faridah Benkhetache), wants to know what brother Majid (Sami Zitouni) is thinking, leaving his high-strung Russian wife, Julia (Alice Houri), alone with her thoughts and their newborn. (Perhaps he’s thinking about the other woman he had sex with in the movie’s opening scene.)

As the camera makes its way around the room and past the heaping plates of food, with the sun yet to set, you can see in the diners’ faces the degrees of satisfaction one can get from having a good meal with beloved people. But there’s also the attendant sadness in Souad’s face—just beneath her temper—when Slimane’s name comes up. This stoic woman misses her ex (as much as, we find, Julia misses her husband). By this point, we’ve entered a completely emotionalist realm. Kechiche is one of those special talents who can use the camera to make a character’s inner life robustly cinematic. We feel their passions because he situates us right next to them—we might as well be guests at their table.

The movie builds to the restaurant’s soft opening, designed to curry favor with local bigwigs, bureaucrats, and businesspeople, who, in a vaguely self-congratulatory way, seem to be rooting for Slimane. It’s a fraught situation that lasts for a suspenseful forty minutes. Who knew a missing meal, a room full of hungry white people, an old man chasing a motorbike, and a desperate but committed belly dance could make you sweat like this? Kechiche watches patiently as his realism comes to a boil. This movie is as much a thriller as The Wages of Fear or Blood Simple.

Right before things take an unexpected turn and that eleventh-hour belly dance comes to the rescue, the film launches a subtly damning, comical cultural critique. Majid’s white mistress happens to show up, in her business capacity, for Slimane’s opening night, and her modest Arabic impresses a tablemate, who exclaims, “Very hip!” Meanwhile, some neighborhood restaurant owners in attendance worry that the down-home-ness of Slimane’s place will be hard to beat. Most of these exchanges are presented as though overheard from a table away.

Once that belly starts undulating, the restaurant’s white faces look up, drunk and delighted. In this complexly conceived and realized moment, the dancer uses sex and cultural exoticism to distract tables of formerly civilized but suddenly restless white natives. Slimane’s daughters watch with a mix of personal envy and ethnic shame. But Kechiche invites us to acknowledge a fundamental truth about Arabs—or any people of color—in the history of the movies: stereotypes sell. It’s an astounding scene, even aside from the suspense that inspires it in the first place. Kechiche’s ideas of ethnicity, enterprise, and canny self-exploitation are conscious. Compare them with the institutionalized racism of a movie like, say, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, where Western hyperactivity and faux sensitivity are grafted onto India like Teflon onto a pot. The Secret of the Grain literalizes the tension between a Western hunger for exotic entertainment and an Arab’s willingness to feed it. The movie comments on a political power dynamic that seems lost on filmmakers like Boyle.

As with every other sequence in this film, those last forty minutes are a triumph of excess over restraint. The stakes are astronomical for everybody. The fingerprints of Kechiche the storyteller are evident on some of the action—we knew Majid was a knucklehead, but his running off is a bit preposterous, even if his selfishness is not without reason. Then there’s the final shot, the genius of which lies in its shock. On the one hand, your heart breaks; on the other, you’re exhilarated. Following such an abrupt ending, there remains a morbid curiosity about the morning after, its tears and recriminations. Who will blame whom? Who will feel they are to blame? Will these events destroy the family or unite it? So many questions need answering, so many issues beg for resolution. But that last shot leaves you with the unexpected high of tragedy, not its cruel hangover. Anyway, by that point Kechiche has so thoroughly worn you out that you couldn’t possibly stand another minute. What we’ve just witnessed—in all its eruptive glory—is movie enough.