The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mulet) [DVD]
Director : Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenplay : Abdellatif Kechiche
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Habib Boufares (Slimane Beiji), Hafsia Herzi (Rym), Farida Benkhetache (Karima), Abdelhamid Aktouche (Hamid), Bouraouïa Marzouk (Souad), Alice Houri (Julia), Leila D’Issernio (Lilia), Abelkader Djeloulli (Kader), Olivier Loustau (José), Sabrina Ouazani (Olfa), Mohamed Benabdeslem (Riadh), Bruno Lochet (Mario), Cyril Favre (Serguei), Sami Zitouni (Majid), Mohamed Karaoui (Lafita)
A big winner on both the international film festival circuit (it won a Special Jury Prize at Venice) and at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), where it won four awards including Best Picture, actor-turned-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s third film The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mullet) is a close, fascinating examination of tensions in a large immigrant family in the south of France. Simultaneously an intimate character study and a broad depiction of the ever-evolving immigrant experience, Kechiche’s film gathers force as it moves slowly forward, amassing a wealth of detail that culminates in a 40-minute climax that is as tense and suspenseful as anything Hitchcock ever put on screen, but without any sense of artifice. The film is completely fictional, and Kechiche’s greatest accomplishment (and that of his amazing cast of both professional and nonprofessional actors, whose characters feel captured, rather than played) may very well be the sheer invisibility of the filmmaking process; more so than any film in recent memory, it achieves a lived-in naturalness that invites the viewer to not just sit back and watch, but take a seat at the table.
The story centers around Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), the grave, 61-year-old father of a family of Arab immigrants who have made their home in the Mediterranean port city of Séte for the past four decades. During that time the family has grown and cracked, with Slimane’s two daughters and two sons growing up, getting married, and having children of their own while his own marriage to Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk), an intimidating matriarch and fantastic cook, has dissolved. Since then, Slimane has taken up with Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), an independent younger woman who owns the mousy hotel in which he rents a room. At the beginning of the film Slimane finds himself out of work at the shipyard where he has invested the past 35 years of his life, mostly because he is older and therefore slower and considered expendable despite his many years of service. With some prodding from Latifa’s feisty teenage daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi, in an award-winning debut), Slimane decides to fulfill a lifelong dream of opening a restaurant, a difficult endeavor that requires contributions from his entire family, including Souad, whose fish couscous will be the signature house dish (the film’s original French title, which translates to The Seed and the Mullet, is a direct reference to this dish and the important role food plays in the film).
The key to Slimane’s dream, and the underlying poignancy of his endeavor, is that it is not for himself that he wishes to open this restaurant, but rather for his children, so that he may leave something for them. Laid off and fundamentally alone despite those around him, Slimane feels used up and impotent and lacking in any real accomplishments. In his mind, a man must leave behind some kind of legacy, and his separation from his family due to his and Souad’s divorce only serves to further isolate him, which is emphasized in a lengthy sequence in the middle of the film when the family gathers for a lively Sunday afternoon meal while he sits alone in his hotel room. Kechiche, who was born in Tunisia and raised in France and therefore knows this cultural terrain from personal experience, allows the characters to emerge out of the daily rituals of life that are, in essence, the film’s true subject. And, while keeping track of all the loose storylines is confusing at first, we soon begin to recognize the familiar, interwoven dilemmas of marital infidelity, the challenges of child-rearing, and the manner in which siblings relate to and compete with each other, all of which is complicated by Slimane’s relationship with Rym, who he treats as (and refers to as) his own daughter.
The story, which Kechiche unfolds with long sequences of handheld camerawork and intimate close-ups, gradually builds momentum as Slimane refurbishes a large boat for his restaurant and stages an invitation-only free dinner for a hundred friends, family, and potential investors; it is, in essence, him putting everything on the line with a singular event, which will either make or break him. We watch and wait, then, knowing that something at some point will go wrong, and when it eventually does, it begins a process of tragic unraveling that Kechiche uses for both conventional movie suspense and as an extended metaphor for the difficulties of the older immigrant generation. It is an absorbing, gut-twisting experience, even as it is leavened with the film’s close attention to character behavior and atmospheric detail. The film’s abrupt ending seems almost calculated to generate debate: Is it a cheat in which Kechiche escapes the web he’s spun without answering any questions, or a brilliantly designed ploy to force us to come to grips with not only the complexities of the lives we’ve been watching for the past two and a half hours, but also the simplistic notion embraced by too many movies that all problems have a conventional set of answers on which we can all agree? This is a film whose story extends far beyond the parameters of its running time.
|The Secret of the Grain Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
|The Secret of the Grain is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray (SRP $39.95).|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||July 27, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The Secret of the Grain was shot on high-definition video using the HD Sony 900, so the image on Criterion’s DVD is a direct digital port from the digital intermediate that was approved by director Abdellatif Kechiche. The image is extremely good, with plenty of sharpness to bring out the detail, especially in the film’s numerous close-ups, but not so much that it looks “digital” (in fact, I was surprised by just how “filmlike” the image looks). Colors are strong and beautifully rendered, from the earthy browns and tans of the couscous to the intense blues of the sky. The film’s fully digital soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio masters and presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, is also excellent. The track is crisp and clean, which benefits the numerous dialogue sequences, and the surround channels come alive during the scenes with music, particularly the extended climax, which brings us right into the middle of the action.|
|Criterion has included a strong set of supplements to go along with the film. Although this two-disc set lacks an audio commentary, there is an excellent 12-minute video interview with director Abdellatif Kechiche, in which he discusses his approach to film art, and a 22-minute video interview with film scholar Ludovic Cortade, who analyzes the film aesthetically and also contextualizes it within French history and the various subgenres of French cinema dealing with immigrants. There are no deleted or alternate scenes, however the second disc does include Sueur, Kechiche’s extended 45-minute re-edit of the belly-dancing sequence, which he introduces and explains. Additional supplements include an 8-minute excerpt of Kechiche and actress Hafsia Herzi being interviewed the morning after the Césars on 20 heures, a French television program; new video interviews with Herzi (15 min.), actress Bouraouïa Marzouk (11 min.), and the film’s musicians (15 min.); and a theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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