Although its English title might be more enticing (and marketable), the literal translation — The Grain and the Mullet — of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cesar award-winner, strikes me as a more fitting title for a film this earthy, this in touch with the sensual pleasures of food, drink, and flesh. There’s no secret here; like the fish couscous its characters consume with relish, it’s made with nothing but obvious love.
The film tells the story of Slimane (Habib Boufares), the stoic patriarch of a North African immigrant family living on the southern coast of France. Recently laid off from his job at a shipyard, Slimane, with the help of his girlfriend’s daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), pursues his dream of opening a restaurant on a boat, which will feature his ex-wife’s fish couscous as its signature dish. Although at the center of the film, Slimane is perhaps the movie’s most unknowable character; he rarely speaks or betrays emotion. Nevertheless, the hardships of his life — his estrangement from much of his family, the years of hard labor, and being passed over for promotions — are all registered in each line and wrinkle of his weathered, worried face, in the perpetually down-turned corners of his mouth.
Not that Slimane would be able to get a word in even if he tried: His large extended family, including a whole host of women on the edge of nervous breakdowns, have more than enough to say. Many of the film’s scenes take place around a kitchen table, the characters trading barbs one minute and, the next, verbalizing their anxieties about their relationships and jobs, all between mouthfuls of fish couscous. Indeed, it’s a film about the way relatives talk (and talk and talk) and eat (and eat and eat). Kechiche has a special understanding of that peculiar way only family members — with their shared joys, heartaches and rivalries — talk to one another, inhibitions eased by familiar settings and home cooking.
The Secret of the Grain is reminiscent of Visconti’s epic La Terra Trema, both in its ennobling depiction of a marginalized fishing family and in its neo-realist approach to time. Scenes unfold in what often feels like real time, so that when Kechiche doesn’t cut here or refuses to edit there, it can be jarring. As viewers, we’re accustomed to films that spare us the tedious, sometimes frustratingly mundane aspects of everyday existence, expecting that they will distill experience into only its most exciting, “important” elements. Thus, scenes stretch on for an exasperatingly long time, like the one in which Slimane walks in on his hysterical daughter-in-law and, unable to consoler her, can only quietly bear the words she hurls at him with increasing vehemence. The point, however, is that we see and hear everything Slimane does, are subject to each blow life deals him, and feel it just as acutely.
The film is also helped enormously by the presence of newcomer Hafsia Herzi as Rym, who brings a mighty presence and smoldering sex appeal to the role. There’s something undeniably carnal about her — indeed, when we first meet her, she wolfs down couscous with relish as Kechiche’s camera focuses, almost indecently, on her gustatory ecstasy. It’s one of the year’s best performances, topped off by an extended belly dancing sequence -- eyes rolled back in her head, her hand running through her hair -- in which she absolutely ignites the screen.
The ending, which will frustrate those who demand closure, is, I think, a fitting conclusion for a film that revels in emotional ambiguity, in which even the most joyous moments are punctuated by an inescapable current of sadness. Intercutting scenes of Slimane, worn out and trying pathetically to get his scooter back from youths who have stolen it, with scenes of Rym belly-dancing, this final sequence is alternately fevered and heartbreaking, sensual and tragic. At the same moment Rym discovers and asserts her sexuality and the power contained therein, Slimane succumbs to the unfeeling, callous world that he has long silently endured. It’s a tragic and fitting metaphor for an age-old cycle in which the elder generation, inevitably, sacrifices itself for the advancement of the next.