The Girl Must Know
“Look on the bright side: you’ll have time with your grandkids.” As he’s losing his job at the shipyard, 61-year-old Slimane (Habib Boufares) shakes his head, slowly. “I’ve worked 35 years between the sea and the yard,” he says. But because he’s no longer “profitable,” repairing boats and fishing equipment at a pace determined by what he sees needs doing, Slimane is forced into a new sort of life.
That doesn’t mean he has more time for his family, however, at least not in the sense that his much younger former boss might imagine it. Instead, he accepts his meager settlement pay (half his time has been off the books, and so this “retirement” isn’t even close to adequately funded) in order to start a restaurant. Specifically, he buys an ancient fishing boat, aptly (or ironically) named Le Source, to convert into a couscous place—with his longsuffering wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), as cook, his fractious adult children as workers, and his Arab immigrant community, in the French Mediterranean port of Sète, as his presumed primary clientele.
Slimane’s effort forms the center of Abdellatif Kechiche’s lovely, mesmerizing The Secret of the Grain (Graine et Le Mulet). This effort is complicated by multiple factors, not least being his extended family. Estranged from Souad, Slimane is typical of his generation and background, thoughtful, stoic, and frustratingly taciturn. He and Souad maintain a tense sort of distance: on his way home from work, he regularly stopped by the home they formerly shared in order to drop off fresh fish (free from his friends down at the shipyard, and not precisely the support payments she’d prefer). His new jobless situation exacerbates this tension, and also strains his relationship with Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), the owner of the hotel where he stays. (The first sign of this stress predictably emerges in the bedroom, the camera focused closely on his face, fallen and damp following an unfinished performance; Latifa leans in to soothe him, but to no avail, as he picks up to spend the rest of the evening in his own bed.)
At the same time, Slimane feels a deep obligation and affection toward his children and their families. On the day he loses his job, he stops by his son’s apartment, where he listens to his daughter-in-law Karima (Faridah Benkhetache) hold forth on child-rearing (she’s weary of her young daughter’s toilet training mishaps) and also the virtues of labor standing up to management. At the cannery, she offers, she and her fellow workers went on strike to protest downsizing of their numbers and their paychecks, electing a spokesperson and resisting such mistreatment. As she speaks, energetic and insistent, the camera follows her in the cramped kitchen, cutting occasionally to her husband Hamid (Abdelhamid Aktouche) and father-in-law, who mostly look weary, their jobs lost of endangered. “They’re taking advantage of people who make a pittance,” she argues. Her husband sighs, “You watch too much TV.”
Karima’s energy has a flipside in Slimane’s other daughter-in-law, Julia (Alice Houri), currently coming to terms with her young husband Majid’s (Sami Zitouni) philandering. Feeling confined at home with her baby, she discovers that Souad knows her son is cheating, and even taking phone messages for him. Julia won’t accept what Souad and generations of wives have absorbed before, that her husband is free to carouse while she must tend to their children and home. It happens that Slimane finds her during a particular upset, her sobs so intense that she is unable to breathe. She resents Majid’s immaturity and selfishness, his sense of entitlement. She gasps, “I’m a piece of shit, like I’m the problem.” But, she adds, lucid in her outrage, “You never look at yourselves.” Silent again, Slimane appears stricken, his eyes averted, his mind preoccupied with his own very immediate problems and yet faced here with the effects of youthful, specifically masculine callousness.
The counterpoint to the women’s frustrations is embodied, to an extent, in Latifa’s vivacious teenaged daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). She especially takes hold of the restaurant idea with a youthful ambition, putting together a prospectus for the bank loan officer, taking him around to the government offices where he needs forms signed, and soliciting help from locals who gather at her mother’s bar and café (where Rym works as a waitress). When he and his sons work on the boat, she brings lunch, irritated by her mother’s refusal to claim her part in the reformed family, eager to help Slimane move on to a next stage. When she overhears Hamid suggest to Slimane that he give up on this new venture and return to “the old country” where he might retire in peace, Rym is furious, insisting that he has a life, a real one, with her and Latifa, even given the difficulties of French racism and classism—both made more than apparent during a first, trial night at the new restaurant, to which Rym and Slimane invite immigrant community members as well as potential white backers.
At once detailed and spare, exposing familial conflicts and loyalties, generational expansions and ruptures, Secret of the Grain is subtly rhythmic, a story of desires repressed, enacted, and rediscovered.