The Secret of the Grain
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 154 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 French/Arabic
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 27, 2010
Review Date: July 11, 2010
A domestic drama that portrays all of the messy complexities of family life, Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain finds this unique filmmaker with another award-winning movie on his hands. Despite the four César Awards it won (including best film and best director), it’s too long and it’s a bit indulgent in its focus on a multi-generational family, all of whom have loves and hates, insecurities and problems that they’re grappling with in addition to worrying about their siblings and parents’ travails. Still, until the final half hour, the film is gripping and eminently watchable with several characters burrowing into our brains making us care about their ultimate ends.
After working back-breaking labor on the docks of Sète for thirty-five years, Slimane (Habib Boufares) is put out to pasture with a small pension and no viable prospects of landing another job. But he has a plan of his own, worked on with the daughter (Hafsia Herzi) of the woman (Hatika Karaoui) he’s currently seeing: opening up a dockside restaurant on an abandoned freighter he’s bought for almost nothing and serving his ex-wife’s delicious couscous, a specialty in the area than none of the other restaurants serve. With the backing of his entire first family (two sons, four daughters, ex-wife), he plans a special soiree for all of the town officials who refuse to grant him loans and official authorization for his restaurant without proof that he can pull it off.
Paced a bit too leisurely for comfort, The Secret of the Grain splits its time not only exploring the multi-faceted characters in this French-Arabic family but also examining the prejudices concerning immigrants still in force in this seaport French city. The director’s script focuses on the father and “step-daughter,” but there is plenty of angst to be spread around, from the older son Majid (Sami Zitouni) cheating rather blatantly on his sensitive spouse Julia (Alice Houri) who’s stuck at home with a newborn that Majid is doing nothing to raise to Latifa’s jealousy that Slimane’s new venture might take him away from her and even possibly reunite him with his ex-wife since she’s to be doing the cooking for the new establishment. The city officials, all pleasant and smiling on the surface and underneath wishing Slimane’s plan to go belly-up, are presented matter-of-factly by the director, their intolerance obvious without Kechiche shining any spotlights on it. The film has two lengthy set pieces: a Sunday dinner in which we get to know the individual members of the family as they share a gargantuan mullet feast and the climactic invited dinner at the new restaurant where whatever can go wrong does so while the family makes brave attempts to salvage the evening. In both instances and throughout the film, Kechiche keeps the camera in the faces of his characters. Only rarely going for long shots but much more interested in eyes and mouths, Lubomir Bakchev’s cinematography lets us see partially masticated food in mouths and tears welling in the eyes of the disappointed without exception. The writer-director goes a little awry, however, in the film’s final half hour where catastrophes befall the family in ever more ludicrous numbers so that by the end, the film has lost some of our affection and our rooting interest. The director also needs a more judicious film editor as scenes tend to run on far longer than they need to.
The film’s standout performance (which earned her a César as Most Promising Actress) is by Hafsia Herzi as the “stepdaughter” Rym. Loving Slimane as much as any of his own daughters, Rym is a fighter, a take charge young woman, and her role in the climax is heartbreaking in its love and devotion to her “father.” It’s somewhat astonishing to note that this performance was the first time Hafsia had ever acted in anything. She’s quite memorable. Habib Boufares brings quiet dignity to Slimane while Faridah Benkhetache makes the strongest impression of the children, an authoritative mother determined to see her family stay strong and committed to one another. Sami Zitouni and Mohamed Benabdeslem make solid impressions as Slimane’s two weak-willed sons.
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in a transfer that’s anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. It’s a very clean and sharp transfer for the most part with strong, solid color with particularly impressive reds. Flesh tones are accurate and appealing, and black levels are very good. There’s occasionally some haze on the image that doesn’t seem appropriate, but that’s the only quibble. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 25 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track has been well recorded with dialogue clearly emanating from the center channel and music occasionally branching out into the front and rear soundstage. Not much has been done with the entire soundfield, however, with dockside sounds of a port city not exploited in the surrounds at all and nothing much present in the LFE channel either.
The film resides on disc one in the package. All of the bonus material is located on the second disc in the set.
An interview with writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche was conducted with Criterion in 2010 and is presented here in anamorphic widescreen. The filmmaker talks about his philosophy of directing and his techniques of casting both amateurs and professionals in his films and his approach to directing actors. His comments last 12 ¾ minutes.
“Sueur” is a lengthy extension of the climactic dance sequence contained in the film: 45 ¼ minutes which not only has Hafsia Herzi’s celebrated dance but also singing and chanting by her and the band and crowd participation in the festivities, none of which made it into the finished film. It’s in anamorphic widescreen.
An excerpt from the television series 20 Heures featuring interviews with Hafsia Herzi and Abdellatif Kechiche after they had won their César Awards runs for 7 ¾ minutes and is presented in 4:3.
Film scholar Ludovic Cortade critiques the movie in an incisive piece that focuses on the film’s views of the prejudice shown against immigrants. It runs for 21 ¼ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
An interview with co-star Hafsia Herzi finds the young actress discussing how she was discovered for the film and what her first movie experience was like. It runs 14 ¾ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
Actress Bouraouia Marzouk who plays the ex-wife talks about her life and career in an 11-minute interview presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Four of the musicians who play a pivotal role in the film discuss the making of the movie in a 15 ¼-minute featurette presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The film’s theatrical trailer is in anamorphic widescreen and runs for 2 ¼ minutes.
The enclosed 14-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, a couple of color stills, and an appreciative essay on the film by movie critic Wesley Morris.
4/5 (not an average)
The Secret of the Grain has its own rhythms and slants that won’t make it everyone’s cup of tea. Those willing to stick it out will likely be rewarded with an engrossing family drama of complexity and pathos. Recommended!