A Tunisian immigrant changes careers in this intelligent, surprising French drama
Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) looks like a Tunisian Samuel Beckett. His silvery hair unflappably rests atop his narrow, well-lined face, and the rest of his body is just as reed thin but tenaciously durable, as befits his 35 years working the Sète shipyards on France's Mediterranean coast. And he moves through writer/director Abdel Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain with a steadfast statue's gaze. At 61, his world-weary stare doesn't flinch when he's told that he can take cut-back hours or a severance package from work. It doesn't falter during his after-work moped journey, stopping off to get berated/welcomed by his ex-wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), his daughters Karima (Farida Benkhetache) and Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani), and his sons where they live in an unsightly housing flat. And it doesn't change when he continues on to the hotel where he lives among other older Tunisian men, a boardinghouse owned by his current lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaouï), and where Slimane has become a surrogate father to Latifa's 21-year-old daughter Rym (the arrestingly beautiful Hafsia Herzi). Everybody speaks more than Slimane, at a near constant, voluble clip. He lives in the relative quiet of an unadorned single room that he shares with a bird that no longer sings. When not working or dealing with his extended family, Slimane appears to relish the simples pleasures of a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
Over the movie's comic, personal, and perhaps overlong 151 minutes, Kechiche's patient camera takes in all the petty problems and complicated relationships of Slimane's sprawling family, touching on issues of Arabic-speaking immigrants to the land of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, while following Slimane's perhaps Fitzcarraldo-esque plan to start a restaurant on a derelict ship. He plans to serve his ex-wife's delectable fish couscous as his signature dish, hence the title.
Grain--its French title, La Graine et le Mulet, which bluntly translates as "the seed and the mullet," conveys a more workmanlike spirit that compliments the movie's mood--was showered with awards in 2007 and 2008, taking home four Césars, including best film and director, beating out The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, La vie en Rose, and Persepolis. (Kechiche's previous writing/directing outing, L'Esquive, took four Césars in 2005.) Such accolades are mentioned merely to calibrate what kind a movie Grain is, which helps frame what it isn't.
At a very basic storytelling level, Grain offers a nearly textbook art-house/foreign-film look at a contemporary family's foibles and the social and economic hardships they face. Seemingly mundane scenes--such as an extraordinarily busy dinner sequence showing everybody, save Slimane, sitting down to eat Souad's couscous--subtly outline interpersonal relationships and set greater plot points in motion. Parallel setups--the dinner scene is mirrored with an outdoor smoking session with the boardinghouse's men--extend the family's social and political issues into the Tunisian population at large. And when all the characters and overlapping conversations start to run together, the movie turns to the heart-stopping eyes, beguiling curves, and insurgent long hair of a young woman, Herzi's Rym, to hold the attention.
Kechiche shoots Grain as if he's making a Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ethnographic fiction, though, using the camera as an investigative lens to explore the systemic hurdles facing a minority group in a local economy. Slimane's offered severance package is low because he was off the books for half his career. When Slimane, with Rym in tow, approaches a bank for a loan application for his restaurant and the city about a docking slip permit, both politely pass the buck: The bank wants him to get permits before granting a loan, while the city wants him to obtain funding first. And somehow, this odd combination of European film styles--the sweeping cinematic portrait with the sociopolitical essay--yields a disarmingly effective drama, one that always leave you feeling a little unbalanced.
Kechiche maintains that off-kilter life by never entering or ending a scene--or the movie--at a natural pause. Everything begins and ends in the middle of something else: The movie opens during a boat tour of Sète's harbors and cuts before it ever reaches a destination, and from then on every scene unfolds in an sharp cut. It's a strategy that frames every introduction with a blunt naturalism, using abrupt first impressions to sketch characters: Karima gets introduced having a rather rational debate with her very young daughter about using the kiddie potty versus going in her diaper, a scene that neatly captures Karima's ability to recognize what should be done, but choosing less-than effective ways to do so.
Everything works toward to a large, complimentary dinner scene aboard the impressively refurbished boat to woo local politicians, family, and friends to support the restaurant's future. It's expectedly fraught if unexpectedly aided, and during its nearly 30 minutes Kechiche finely pulls the strings on his movie's many dangling plot threads into a tightening, but never tidy, knot. It takes a while to get there, but it is firmly held together by the camera-adored Herzi--who starts off as background eye candy and slowly emerges as the most perceptive, driven, and selfless woman in the movie--and the monolithic Boufares. Slimane barely says a word, but he carries his family, his restaurant's dreams, and the entire movie with his seen-too-much eyes and atop his still durable, if beginning to buckle, back.