Secret of the Grain, 2007, Abdellatif Kechiche
Before I go too far with this write-up, indulge me to complain about the title. The title itself is not terrible. The problem is it does not represent the film well. The French title is La graine et le mulet, which if you ask Google Translate, it will tell you this says “Grain and mule.” Of course this isn’t the real title. The “mulet” is also the French word for the fish that we call “mullet”. The title is clever because it is a play on words. The protagonist is an older, stubborn man (like a mule), and the recurring food dish served, couscous, is comprised of grain and mullet fish. The international title is just Couscous, which is more of a literal translation if you take the double meaning out. In fairness, the French pun cannot be replicated. My guess is a title like Couscous wouldn’t sell well in America, hence the title of this disc. I like the international title, so that’s how I’ll refer to it throughout the essay.
Next I want to say a few words about Abdellatif Kechiche. He is a Tunisian-French filmmaker, and the subjects of his films are of the lower classes, especially this film, which hardly has any strictly French people that aren’t bureaucrats (there is one white French dockworker). After this film came out, Paris Match called him the French Ken Loach. The article I linked is in French, but you can find Mister Loach in the second paragraph. Since then he has made two features, Black Venus about a black South African, and the Cannes champion, Blue is the Warmest Color, which is about a young lesbian couple. Even for France, where we more frequently see the point of view of lower class characters, these films focus on fringe groups. On top of that, he shoots with hand-held, shaky cam, with extreme close-ups, and with lots of dialogue. I’d say the comparison is appropriate. After seeing his two films on Criterion, I’m intrigued and want to see the rest of his work, plus what he does next. Hopefully, like Loach, he’ll be able to continue making films his way.
Of the two Kechiche films I’ve seen, with all due respect to the Cannes winner, Couscous won my heart. It is an existential tale of a flawed, aging family man, who finds himself on the outs working at the boatyard. He’s faced with the prospect of losing hours and not being able to pay his bills, or finding other work. As a Tunisian immigrant, work isn’t easy to come by. In time he hatches a plan to build a restaurant on a boat serving the legendary dish of couscous that his ex-wife prepares. He has a few children with that ex-wife, and his current lover has a teenage daughter, Rym, who he treats as if she were his own. She helps him navigate the byzantine bureaucratic waters in the hopes of setting the project afloat.
A technique of Kechiche’s is long scenes. I remember several in Blue is the Warmest Color (including one controversial one), and there are even more in Couscous. The most notable is a lengthy Sunday dinner scene with all of the family and friends. This is the weekly event where Slimane’s ex-wife, Souad, makes her trademark couscous dish. The scene goes on forever, but it is a truly joyous occasion. The camerawork is frenetic, again with heavy shaky came and constant close-ups. You can even see the grain in the actor’s mouths. No doubt they were really eating. The movement is so fluid that I failed to get a decent screen of the entire scene. It just moved too quickly and chaotically. Even if the scene goes on awhile and few plot details occur, it is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It establishes the tight bond of family and the deliciousness of the food. “Couscous is love,” as they say. Indeed.
It also shows the world of exile. Slimane benefits from the couscous dinner, but he is not a participant at the celebratory event. He eats his dish alone at first until he is joined by his unofficially adopted daughter, Rym (Hafsia Herzi). He is a man that does not belong, and only barely belongs in the world of his lover. He is somewhat discrete about that world, and as we find out later, he keeps his real family separate from the adopted family.
Is Slimane a good man? That’s not an easy question. He is unquestionably devoted to his children and his grandchildren. He has a close relationship with his sons and daughters, and even recruits them into helping with his restaurant venture. Ultimately he is doing this for them, not for him. His life has been spent, perhaps wasted, but they hopefully have a future in a world that doesn’t always welcome them. He also has a close relationship with Rym, who is not his natural daughter and he has no obligation to her, and she reciprocates, seeing him as a father figure that she wants to help.
Slimane may have some admirable qualities, but he has clearly made mistakes in life. We do not understand what happened to break up his marriage, but if his son is any indication, it was infidelity, perhaps with his current lover. His son, Majid, is a philanderer, and in the opening scene we see him in the midst of an affair with an older woman. We later see the justified suspicions of Majid’s wife Julia in an uncomfortably powerful emotional tirade. Perhaps Slimane acted similarly, and perhaps Majid learned his lack of fidelity from his father. Since Majid’s actions later are a turning point of the plot and Slimane’s fate, you could argue that Slimane set his own table.
Some of the remainder of this post could be considered spoiler territory. I do not think so, but be warned in case you want to experience the final act on your own. I will not spoil major plot points or the ending, although I’ll say that it’s an interesting ending that is worth discussing.
I’m going to mostly steer clear of the French bureaucracy and the social statement of the film, which is basically that the chips are stacked against Arab-Franco citizens. It recalls Kassowitz’s La Haine to a certain degree, only it is a family drama rather than a tale of exiled, childhood rebellion. Slimane’s family may not be happy with their status, but they are not rebellious. If anything they are disillusioned and naïve that a prejudiced society would give them a fair shot. As a way to prove to the people that the couscous is delicious and that Slimane can handle the pressure, they host a gala on a boat with all of the local, French dignitaries invited.
The most memorable scene for a lot of reasons is Rym’s belly dance. Many will find it electrifying; others will find it tantalizing; some might even find it disgusting. Whatever your take, there is no doubt that it is a bold performance from Hafsia Herzi. It also comes at a time in the plot and in the narrative that things are slowing down and there seems a lack of momentum. It also is a bridge to the ending. Rym is the specimen of energy and vitality. She has proven through her efforts to help with Slimane’s business that she is wise beyond her years and ambitious. She has a bright future. Without her, the party would have never happened. Slimane is not Rym. He is slower and cannot keep up, but that does not mean he will not try.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Abdellatif Kechiche: 2010 interview.
He admits that his films are not accessible. He avoids known formats, and that might even be bothersome for those who want entertainment. His films are “forms of perception” of different aspects of life.
His father was an inspiration for the film. He wanted his father to star in the film, but he died in pre-production. He wanted to film the working class because that’s what he knows and is what motivates him.
He wanted to shoot in Nice, where he grew up. But when his father died he wanted to change the location to change in order to change the memories. He settled on Sète and used many non-actors from the area.
Kechiche introduces what is a 45-minute short of the belly dance in the film. He says that he really likes sweat and a lot of sweat goes into the performance. He pulled deleted sequences along with what ended up in the final cut, and used them to make a short film of just the dance.
The dance itself is mostly like the filmed version. There are some of the same scenes, including the memorable beginning. At times she sings; at others she chants. We get to see the crowd more engaged. The scene is allowed to breathe more than in the film because the film is so tightly edited.
20 Heures: Excerpt from 2008 TV program.
This is an interview news program and they have Kechiche and Hafsia Herzi on the panel. They go to a location feed at Sète where they interview many of the locals who were non-actors and crew. They are all happy about the acclaim, the awards and the attention. Kechiche says that Sète had energy that was crucial to the film. Herzi had not acted before, but she won the Cesar and was of course pleased.
Ludovic Cortade: Film scholar interview about the themes.
The film is about what is called the “Beur” community, which is a French word for Arabs. The film addresses identity, exile, immigration, and many other ethnic diversity themes. He does not think of this as a “Beur” film, but it does deal with several of these elements. One is racism, mostly from the bureaucrats. Another is exile, like when Slimane is reminded of his upbringing. In most traditional “Beur” films, the men are prominent (like La Haine), but in Secret of the Grain, women are prominent.
The real city of Sète has a variety of types of locations, including beautiful seascapes and Mt. Saint Claire, which is a landmark that has rich housing. There is meaning in what is shown and not shown. We see poorer areas through Kechiche’s lens, such as the docks and lower cost housing. We do not see gentrified or tourist areas.
Hafsia Herzi: Interview with the actress who plays Rym.
She had no contadts in the industry because she lived in Marseilles and there is not much of an industry there. This was her first real audition. She embellished a passion for Eastern dance on her resume, but it probably helped land her the job. Everything went fast, but Kechiche liked her performance. Her scenes had been cut, but when he saw her ability, he rewrote her back in.
She talks about the dancing scene. It was tough with her dancing in front of all those people, and that was no illusion. She was dancing in front of a huge crowd. She wouldn’t have been able to do it anywhere off the set. She wouldn’t have had the nerves. She thought of it as a performance on stage and that fueled her.
Bouraouïa Marzouk: Interview with the actress that played Souad.
She was an immigrant and came to Paris with a thirst of knowledge and energy. She learned to speak French at the Yugoslavian Cultural Center. She got an education, any degrees, made an income, had kids, etc.
The character was not like her with all her books, but she put her all into the role and tried to play her as hard working. They rehearsed the Sunday lunch scene for 10-15 days. She really made the couscous and they really ate it. This was not movie fakery.
Musicians: Interview with the musicians from the film.
Hamid plays lute as a hobby, not professional, but it is his life’s passion. He cannot live without it. Idwar is a flutist that Hamid found. Salah plays zither, which his father taught him in Egypt. He started playing professionally in 1958.
One member had film experience, and said that some directors are very intense, “like Gods” he said. All of the musicians speak flatteringly about Kechiche. They say he was very calm on the set, very respectful and patient. “He creates actors,” one of them said.
They talk about the belly-dancing scene. Without a doubt they agreed that Hafsia is a star. They were not paying as much attention to the dance while they were playing because they were focusing on the music. When they saw it on the screen, and this quote requires no translation, “oof, lalala!” They say she worked extremely hard, was very committed.
Criterion Rating: 9/10
Posted on July 21, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged Abdellatif-Kechiche, blue is the warmest color, couscous, criterion, film. the criterion collection, foodie, french film, Hafsia Herz, tunisia. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.