[In the L's Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven't Seen, banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let's see how we did. Here, Benjamin Sutton, who wrote the one on The Secret of the Grain, compares his preview to his actual response.]
The second César-sweeper from Abdel Kechiche (after 2003’s Games of Love and Chance) addresses another uneasy site of racial tension. Small-town SÃ¨te substitutes for Parisian slums, where the deposed head of an immigrant family in crisis regroups his kin in hopes of opening a restaurant. Moments of optimism recall Volver, but the mood is decidedly less hopeful, the characters’ morality far more ambiguous.
Before seeing this astounding film I imagined it engaging immigration through a similar trajectory as Pedro AlmodÃ³var’s Volver used to address gender: a fractured, disharmonious ensemble (some family, some not) regroup uneasily around the goal of running a restaurant. I imagined it grounded in fairly dire postcolonial realism, as opposed to AlmodÃ³var’s delightful feminist optimism. While these expectations were mostly met, I hadn’t anticipated being so completely engaged with Kechiche’s characters’ lives and dreams throughout this epic of adversity.
His previous film Games of Love and Chance (a tale of adolescence in Parisian projects released in 2003), though outstanding, kept viewers at a distance with characters so awkward, indecisive and sometimes amoral that their ability to provoke empathy eventually, intentionally expired. Here, however, Kechiche has crafted a family epic in the lineage of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander or, more recently, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, where every member of the ensemble is fleshed out, their best and worst tendencies intimated, however fleetingly.
Even more-so than in Games of Love and Chance, The Secret of the Grain is ostensibly about a male protagonist (Habib Boufares’s Slimane), but virtually all the narrative and emotional legwork is done by a set of astounding female characters. Slimane’s daughter Karima (Farida Benkhetache) and his lover’s daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi) eventually steal the show and, in so doing, make sure it goes on.
Beyond its wondrously inconspicuous style, stellar female cast (and certainly Boufares’s stoic melancholic is no slouch either), the use of meals and food as Grain‘s structuring and symbolic principles is applied more successfully here than in any novel or film in recent memory. Whereas Volver‘s restaurant fell into its protagonists’ laps, Slimane’s decision to go into business is completely justified after a wondrous lunch scene where every other member of his family eats couscous and fish around his ex-wife’s table. Here, food is not only a way of providing financial well-being for the family, it’s also a means of cultural preservation.
All the more appropriate, then, that Slimane and his family open their couscous restaurant on a stripped fishing boat at the very edge of a small (and small-minded) French Mediterranean town. Rather than toil silently for a declining maritime industry, Slimane adapts what he knows (boat-building) to a local economy increasingly defined by tourists and their Euros. Cleverly turned metaphors of consumption and cultural tension aside, every subplot and scene away from Grain‘s leads reinforces Kechiche’s point: however disharmonious the relationships that bind people, we can always do more together than separately.