The Secret of the Grain

10/03/2010

France / 2007 / French & Arabic

Directed by Abdellatif Kehiche

With Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Bouraouïa Marzouk

The sky is overcast above the slate blankness of a modern French port city, and it is a lousy day for Slimane, a North African man working at one of the busy shipyards, in the autumn of his life. His foreman has just informed him that he is not working as fast as he used to, that his hours will be cut. He registers real hurt at this news but nothing breaks his disconnected, uninflected gaze, as though his present were too saturated with memories of the past to incorporate any of the gravity of current events. A prodigal patriarch, he still takes time to visit the members of his family, which in itself seems an exhausting undertaking – there is a gaggle of children, ranging from teenaged to grown-up and moved-out, and his wife Souad, who maintains her air of impatience with him even though his propensity and even ability to stir up trouble with anyone appears long-since extinguished. He rides his scooter throughout the town, bringing fresh fish to each household. “Fish doesn’t pay the bills,” says Souad tiredly. No, but it really couldn’t do much worse a job than her husband.

After seeing his daughter Karima and her children, he makes his way home, to a hotel run by his girlfriend Latifa with her daughter Rym, who is about the same age as Slimane’s own children, and who is to him, a surrogate for them all. Living upstairs from Souad and the two youngest is the eldest son, Hamid, is a philanderer with a tendency to leave his wife and baby for stretches of unexplained absence. The ways in which he parallels his father are not subtle, although for Slimane the wrinkles between him and his family have long ago been, if not ironed out, at least bunched in a corner away from obtrusiveness. There is a large gathering of extended family, replete with in-laws and friends, where an attempt is made to mute the seething issues that come between different factions, so they can just enjoy each other’s company.

The relationship between Slimane and Latifa runs low on passion, with them barely communicating verbally, and not at all physically. She has him but at the same time she doesn’t, just as he is not at the aforementioned Sunday family gathering but at the same time, in spirit he is. His family is unshakeable to him, even if he wanted to let them go, and this becomes more apparent to him and Latifa as his vitality, his ability for recklessness and delusion winds down. He and Rym enjoy the leftover food his sons bring to him afterward. Souad later mentions her tradition of delivering excess food to a local homeless man, and when she says that one cannot help but think of Slimane in his cramped quarters that he occupies down the hall from Latifa. The younger son, Riadh, looks Rym over dreamily, but still somehow innocently, a look that rolls off her back. She, at least, identifies the curtain of legitimacy that separates the two of them and at the same time feels transcendent of it.

Self-possessed, practical, and always composed, Rym emerges as Slimane’s savior when he is faced with redundancy. With a bit of severance pay, he decides to buy one of the rust-buckets in the harbor that was going to go to scrap, and turn it into a floating restaurant. And what’s more, it will feature Souad’s delectable fish and couscous, a hit among the family. After thirty years of laboring it is as though he has awoken to a completely changed France, his only remaining option is to capitalize on the new desire for la difference. Rym helps the old man apply for loans, and perseveres even when they are far out of their depth, with little idea of the enormity of what the operation entails. Short on funding and potential investment, Rym plans a debut on the newly refurbished boat, to which the local crème de la crème will be invited to get wined and dined and loosened with music. As a declaration of intent, this is unmatched, and she gets all of Slimane’s family involved in the cooking and logistics, and to help with the schmoozing when the big night finally arrives. A group of older men who hang out at the hotel will provide their musical services. Rym’s lack of intimidation in the face of high cultured society and high finance allows her to attack the project at a grassroots level, pulling together those invaluable resources, family and acquaintances.

In a sense this is an immigrant narrative, but one that is uniquely of this time. The real suffering is over for the most part, the cries of Algerian freedom fighters and Senegalese conscripts long echoed away. Some of the older characters were not born in France, but all of the characters are definitely French. They have been internalized by the culture, but labor from a degree of banality and dearth of options that set them apart from the rest of their countrymen, and which they long to shake off for good. What they have to prove, both to the mainstream and the elite, is that they still have a firm rapport with their foreignness, but that it is refined enough to the point of being widely acceptable. That is what the restaurant will prove. The wealthy and the restaurant critics are game, of course; they clap along to the oud and proclaim their love of couscous, like any liberal should, while retaining the tact not to call any of it exotic, as indeed none of it really is.

In the film professional and non-professional actors mesh seamlessly; it has just that type of atmosphere. With handheld cinematography and natural lighting, it all looks very much like a documentary, and the characters, constituting Slimane’s constellation of raucous but warmly accepting family and friends, speak and react in a manner that is close to conversational, but is so rough and ready and emotionally acute that it resists any contrivances common to other pictures of its ilk. One can imagine the actor’s connections to their characters and well-inhabited knowledge of their feelings, as they navigate the complex ensemble scenes with warmth and vivacity, the pitfalls all their very own. The anger feels as genuine as the hilarity, the magnetism between characters often understated but always palpable.

While falling well short of the temporal sprawl of a novel, the film is still epic, if not for its scope then certainly for its length. While periods of chronology are dashed through (like much of Slimane’s renovation of the boat and his and Rym’s efforts to get the restaurant off the ground), the individual scenes are carried out much as they would be in real life, not truncated or reduced to short one-liners. Director Kehiche allows the situations to unfold to their true conclusion, as though he himself were incessantly curious about what is going to happen next.

To a film like this, too much brevity could have been fatal. Thankfully it does not fall victim to that. It most resembles a collection of dense character studies happening at once, while the viewer is occupied keeping all of the players straight. There is one scene in which Julia, Hamid’s long-suffering wife, berates Slimane for his son’s infidelity and insensitivity, and all the while the old man says nothing, looking quite broken and ashamed. Her angry, tearful monologue goes on for a length of time that, in a standard narrative would seem tedious and outlasting of any scene’s welcome. But Kehiche’s presentation does not constitute a standard story flow; here is the outpouring of emotion from a woman bogged down by rage and frustration, and in a true-to-life rendering, that really does require a long, painful span of time, not to be assuaged by summarization.

Several factors concerning the characters’ choices and their relationships remain a mystery. They conduct themselves with candor, but nonetheless are not quick to confide. One may wonder why Souad agrees to help Slimane in his endeavor, when in some ways he has not been there for her or her children. The obvious answer is that he is her main financial support, and it would be trouble for her and the family if he remained unemployed. In some ways though, there seems a deeper reason in her desire to not feel as though she has lost him entirely, that she still has a claim on him, one which cannot be dissolved by his relationship with the other woman.

Still from 'The Secret of the Grain'The connection that Souad has to her husband is something intangible, manifested in the food she prepares, and which he occasionally gets to share with his family even though he is not there in person. What they say about access to a man’s heart being partly the truth, his wife uses her old-world wisdom and charm to keep him as a presence in the lives of his children. But: “I’d rather be the gorgeous one than know how to cook,” Rym says encouragingly to her mother, who is feeling insecure about how important she is to Slimane, and more or less pins down the limits of her situation. Latifa is the only character who seems not have gotten her proper due in terms of screen time, but that may have been the intent. She is forever remote, while being the one physically closest to Slimane, who is the central character. She is the one who does not play an active role in his and Rym’s scheme, and even seems to feel marginalized by the whole thing. She, like her daughter, likes him for who he is, and not for the position he is supposed to occupy in their lives. And she, along with Rym, provide his background support, while he, all through his now waning life, has been hardwired to believe that he is defined by whom he himself is able to support.

The Secret of the Grain is one of the rare films that bears inestimable confidence that the travails of daily life and well-accustomed family interactions have the innate variety to provide rich cinematic fodder. Engaging and buoyed by spontaneity, it values the inadequacies of people just as much as it does the powerful moments of bare, emotional contact that keep them locked in permanent friction. Both have beauty, and both are indispensable. And most importantly the film has the fortitude and patience to give characters space to reach their full expression – the rest, after all of that, is up to them.

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