The Secret of the Grain

Review by Jane Freebury

When some of the best dishes in the world come from the countries around the Mediterranean, what better way to celebrate them than show how they bring people together. Even a close-knit émigré Arabic community in southern France has plenty of fault lines, but none so deep that a meal of good couscous won’t mend.

French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche invites us to take a seat at the table and join in this vibrant and involving drama of family life. Clearly, he wants us outsiders to get exposure to all the dynamics at very close range and it’s no surprise to hear that he likes to ‘play’ with his audience –some of the best directors do – and to take things beyond a tolerable level sometimes. It’s an approach that has something of the agent provocateur about it.
Strong women dominate in this story. From Souad (Bouraouia Marzook) – the matriarch whose irresistible couscous keeps her squabbling family together – to her feisty daughter who tells her errant brother off, when no one else will, least of all his dispirited and passive father Slimane (Habib Boufares).

Then there’s Rym (Hafsia Herzi), the young woman who takes Slimane under her wing and helps him prepare a business case for turning a rusting hulk into a floating restaurant. It will serve fish couscous prepared by his former wife. And later on when the odds are stacked against the family enterprise on opening night she finds a way to hold the attention of restive diners with a performance you won’t forget.

Everyone is lensed in tight close-up, so close you can even see grains of semolina disappearing into open mouths. And yet cinematographer Lubomir Bakchev gets inside his characters that way. There are few among the actors who don’t stand up well to such scrutiny, although only a handful of the key cast are professional and the rest are all amateurs.

The film brings out some key issues like the inability of the first generation immigrants to integrate as well as their children, the difficulties they have communicating with their grown-up offspring in their new home. Patriarchy seems particularly redundant here.

I was reminded of those intimate studies of communities in provincial Marseille by Robert Gueduigian, and yes, of the films of Ozu, who Kechiche is said to be influenced by. The Secret of the Grain is a very satisfying experience, like a good meal, even when it is nearly 2 hours and 50 minutes long. And most of all made me think of how many fascinating films there are around now by second generation immigrants, with a foot in each camp.

4 stars