May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 17, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
I am not sure exactly what the “secret of the grain” is other than a metaphor for the mysterious way in which families stay together despite financial hardship, longstanding bitterness, and infidelity. The original title of the film translates simply as “couscous and mullet,” a dish as simple and straightforward as this film, which also contains but a few hardy ingredients. Slimane, a patriarch of sorts, is downsized after working for decades at the shipyards in Sète. With no other job skills to offer, he decides to renovate a rusty ship into a quayside Tunisian restaurant that will feature his ex-wife’s memorable couscous. The film, however, really isn’t interested in this storyline until the second half, during which we follow Slimane and Rym (the faithful daughter of his girlfriend) through the process of obtaining the necessary licenses and clearances to park a boat in the middle of Sète and open a restaurant. Until then, Secret of the Grain is a breathless rush through Slimane’s extended family and the tenuous ways they live with each other though divided by generational gaps, loosely kept secrets, and the struggle to make a life in France. After running into piles of red tape, Slimane decides just to pull the boat up to the pavement and invite all the necessary officials on board for a night on the house. It is his hope that showcasing his vision for the boat will grease the wheels. But in the scramble to fill these tables and provide a truly North African vibe for these important customers, the subtext of all these family squabbles comes to a hilt. Our last trek through the city with Slimane is memorable.
What makes Secret of the Grain so engrossing is not just Kechiche’s handheld camerawork, which darts naturally from face to face throughout conversations and periodically sweeps across the beautiful port, but the success of this massive cast in believably staging a wide range of joys and griefs. At the center of the film is Slimane’s close relationship to Rym. Here the generational pulse of the story beats steadily, Kechiche steeping us through all these family issues into the difficulty of being an immigrant (Cummings notes in his review that Kechiche refers to “the mullet” because it is such a robust, adaptable species). The end of the film is an extended, exotic dance number, in which Rym intentionally bridges the gap between her youth and Slimane’s heritage, between his desire for a role and the licensing of his restaurant. It ends unexpectedly in a number of ways, but most noticeably in the manner Kechiche abandons any pretense of accomodation. Throughout the film his characters have been accomodating to France and to each other. And we have been accomodating to his filming style and the density of this simple story. But when Rym takes the stage, Secret of the Grain hits its stride as a meditation on heritage and family. In Rym’s dance we become outsiders to this family and their struggles, sitting like these city officials in Slimane’s restaurant. It can be difficult to keep pace with Kechiche’s camerawork for so long – but Secret of the Grain is irreducibly complex. Just like the simple dish offered by Slimane’s restaurant, it only consists a few indispensible components.