Fish couscous has never looked so good—nor the émigré experience so real—as in Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s intimate saga of an extended family living in the French seaport of Sète. Grey-haired Tunisian immigrant Slimane is let go after 35 years, some of it under the table, as a dockworker. With his severance pay he dreams of turning an old freighter into a restaurant with his ex-wife’s renowned mullet couscous as the specialty. This doesn’t sit well with his current girlfriend, who hoped he would put the money into renovating her rundown hotel. Meanwhile, the white financial officers and city bureaucrats, one of whom doesn’t know he has an illicit tie to Slimane’s family, place one hurdle after another before the taciturn old man. But the hotelkeeper’s determined daughter Rym steps up to make the project succeed for her cherished stepfather and organizes a go-for-broke dinner party to seduce potential investors and the city’s big shots. Winner of four Césars (France’s Oscars) including best picture, and winner of the 2007 FIPRESCI and Special Jury prizes at the Venice Film Festival, this is a minutely detailed, sharply observed portrait of the immigrant generation contending with its French-born offspring and the dominant culture in a time when they are no longer the freshest émigrés off the boat. Hafsia Herzi (César winner for best female newcomer) is a standout as Slimane’s girlfriend’s beautiful daughter Rym, not just for her spirited harangues and mouth-watering noshing style but for her resourcefulness when disaster strikes and desperate measures are called for.
Tragicomic epic of Arab immigrant life in a French port town, 10 May 2008
Author: Chris Knippfrom Berkeley, California
Abdellatif Kechiche, who is also an actor, stands with Turkish-German director Faith Akim as the preeminent director dealing with diaspora experience in western Europe. He was born in Tunisia but was brought to France at the age of six and grew up in Nice. ‘La graine et le mulet,’ the title, refers to (mullet) fish couscous (grain) and Kechiche has said he’s as stubborn as the mullet. The action is in the southern French port town of Sète. Most of the cast are non-actors.
Though marred by a jittery camera in intimate scenes, over-close closeups, and some sequences that are allowed to run too long, ‘The Secret of the Grain’ is nonetheless a triumph, an emotionally powerful, overwhelmingly rich, epic-feeling tragi-comedy that overflows with wonderful performances, evokes a host of masters including Jean Renoir and the Italian neorealists, and fairly bursts off the screen with its loving and complex portraits of Magreban society in France and the harsh world in which it struggles and survives. The main focus for all this is food: two grand meals, one intimate and familial, the other in a projected couscous restaurant on an old boat where friends and family and local officials are all invited to show off cuisine and entertainment in an effort to prove that an old man at the end of his tether can, with the help of his family and friends, make a go of it in a new business, against all odds. Kechiche and his cast focus not so much on any plot-line arc, though there are dramatic turns of events right up to the end, but on the way they work as an ensemble to make each moment come alive. In the somewhat stilted, over-polished and over-sophisticated and often dry world of French cinema, it’s not hard to see how the rough, irresistible energy of the world Kechiche brings to the screen here would seem a welcome tonic. And, it has to be admitted, giving the same very gifted Arab director the run of the Césars twice can’t help but be soothing to the consciences of the left-liberal intellectuals who tend to dominate the world of French film criticism. It doesn’t hurt that ‘Secret’ is offered by Pathé and has the imprimatur of the prestigious producer Claude Berri.
Kechiche’s previous (and second) film ‘L’Esquive’ (“The Avoidance”), retitled in English ‘Games of Love and Chance’ (after the 18th-century playwright Marivaux’s work which is central to the plot) which won four Césars, including Best Director and Best Film, was about the young mixed population of children of immigrants who live in the ghetto-like suburban Paris ‘banlieue.’ This new story is a homage to the “fathers,” the generation of Kechicne’s parents, who immigrated to France forty or fifty years ago.
Hence the protagonist is the sad but determined Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), who as the movie begins is told by his boss at the port shipyard workshop that, now sixty-one, he is no longer “rentable” (profitable), his work is too slow, he doesn’t keep up with the schedule on projects. Threatened with no benefits because earlier in his 35 years at the site he was off the books and now offered only half-time status, he quits. He lives in a room in a little hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), whose daughter Rhn (Hafsia Herzi) considers Slimane her own dad and defends him against his mean sons by his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk). He owes her alimony, but brings fish instead. The sons say he ought to go back to the ‘bled,’ the old country; they want to be rid of him.
Slimane’s eldest son Hamid (Abdelhamid Aktouche) is married to a Russian woman. His family evidently know about his philandering and especially his affair with the deputy mayor’s wife–the need to conceal which becomes a plot pivot-point.
While Slimane is alone in his little hotel room Souad has a big fish couscous dinner with their offspring and their French husbands and children. This sequence is irritating at times for its clamorous, shifting closeups and its cacophonous talk, but at the same time the way this lively, tumultuous gathering in close quarters has been shot is a tour-de-force of complex naturalism. When the sons bring Slimane a dish of the fish couscous, he gets the idea of enlisting his ex-wife to be the cook in a restaurant he might establish in an abandoned ship. Rhm goes with him to the bank and city offices to present the project where they’re politely received, but not given the green light. This is where the idea comes to give a grand dinner on the ship to convince everyone Slimane and company can make a go of it. A lot of the second half of the movie consists of this dinner.
The naturalism of the sequence may be suggested by the fact that Bouraouia Marzouk actually did a lot of the cooking for 100 people for the dinner. The theft of Slimane’s Moubylette is a conscious homage to De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thief’ (‘Ladri di biciclette’). ‘La graine et le mulet’ is a thrilling, amusing, moving, excruciating screen experience that takes Abdellatif Kechiche to a new level of accomplishment, but the vagaries of his methods will continue to create enemies as well as admirers as he goes along. As Jacques Mandelbaum wrote in ‘Le Monde,’ ‘The Secret of the Grain’ “mixes romance and social chronicle, melodrama and comedy, the triviality of the everyday and the grandeur of tragedy. A simple family meal becomes a classic sequence, a table of old immigrants becomes a Greek chorus, a belly dance a high point of erotic vibration and dramatic tension.” For all its flaws, this movie packs a huge wallop and brings Adbellatif Kechiche to the brink of greatness.