Sixty-one-year-old Slimane, laid off from his shipyard job, tries to remake himself as a restaurateur in this touching and infuriating film that details life among the Arab immigrant community in the French Mediterranean port Sète. The Secret of the Grain renders in great depth the working class, immigrant experience against the backdrop of the changing economy of France’s southern coast, but at over two-and-a-half hours has two or three or four vignettes too many.
With the help of his stepdaughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), Slimane (Habib Boufares) attempts to work through normal bureaucratic channels to turn his battered old boat into a floating restaurant showcasing in his ex-wife Souad’s fish couscous. Frustrated by red tape in his quest for a loan and for various permits, Slimane decides on a less orthodox route to a new career. He renovates the boat with his sons, and throws a fund-raising dinner to finance his dream. Family conflicts, the enmity of jealous restaurant owners, and a series of ill-timed events and coincidences threaten Slimane’s big night, and writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche withholds resolution until the final frames of Secret of the Grain.
For the most part, Secret of the Grain tells Slimane’s story with economy and restraint. In a clever yoking of the professional and the personal, a sequence in which Slimane delivers fish to less than enthusiastic family members who are tired of seafood, serves both to introduce Slimane’s extended family, and also to tie his own diminished familial capital to his fortunes at work. A dinner table scene unfolds with similar thrift, further developing multiple characters and relationships at once, and establishing food, especially couscous, as central to the family and the film.
In an exclusive interview included on the extras DVD, Kechiche says that he refrains from granting his characters political positions, and Secret of the Grain bears this out. After 35 years at sea and in the shipyard, Slimane is coldly forced out of his job, but Secret of the Grain never devolves into a polemic on the demise of the fishing industry and its human cost, instead focusing on a family and friends who don’t define themselves by their class position.
The process of making couscous—preparing the ingredients separately, then combining them before serving—suggests filmmaking, editing in particular, and provides a key to what seems in Secret of the Grain an indulgence in excess. We learn early on that Souad’s couscous excels because each ingredient—fish, vegetables, sauce—deserves to be savored for its own sake as well as enjoyed as part of the whole dish. What works in the kitchen doesn’t always work in the editing room, though. While most scenes in Secret of the Grain work on their own terms—indeed many are notable set-pieces featuring moving performances by the film’s ensemble of nonprofessional actors—they sometimes overwhelm Slimane’s story and slow the film’s progress.
At a crisis point in the middle of the fund-raising dinner, Slimane leaves on an errand and encounters Julia (Alice Houri) the wife of his son Majid (Sami Zitouni). Julia launches into a harangue about her husband’s infidelities and what she perceives as his family’s complicity in his extramarital adventures. It’s a great performance by Houri, who makes Julia sympathetic and insufferable at the same time, but the scene is interminable and repetitive. Julia has made this complaint before, and the new information she imparts could have been relayed in a scene one quarter as long. Slimane listens passively, then simply walks away.
Admittedly, the scene underscores the welter of conflicts that beset Slimane. Such episodes interrupt life, go on too long, and end without resolution. There’s more going on with such scenes than an emphasis on verité at the expense of plot, however. Kechiche insists in the extras interview that his films are “never simply reality being filmed”, but rather “constructed” stories that he “deconstructs” as production of the film progresses. Secret of the Grain eludes easy categorization—it’s no Gallic Big Night—and undercutting expectations makes it an exceptional film. Still, at times Kechiche’s signature deconstruction of convention and expectation appears, at times, like sabotage.
An actor himself, Kechiche takes particular pleasure in nurturing raw talent. Interviews with cast members among the DVD extras reveal how the director assembles his ensemble and coaxes such powerful performances from them. He makes casting calls in mostly working-class neighborhoods for actors with or without experience, and gives his recruits plenty of time to get to know each other. While Secret of the Grain is scripted and actors stick to their lines, Kechiche had the cast improvise with each other during rehearsals to become comfortable with one another and with performing.
Herzi, who won the 2008 César for Best Female Newcomer for her work in Secret of the Grain explains that Kechiche rewrote and expanded the role of Rym after auditioning her. It was a wise move. Her relationship with Slimane is the heart of the film and her award was well deserved.
Sweat, an extended version of Rym’s pivotal belly-dancing scene at the dinner, an excerpt from a television interview with Kechiche and Herzi, and an interview with film scholar Ludovic Cortade complete the filmed extras. A printed essay by critic Wesley Morris assessing the achievement of Secret of the Grain and placing it in the context of Kechiche’s other films, accompanies the package.