“The Secret of the Grain” - Abdellatif Kechiche (2007)

One of the more highly lauded French films of recent years was the Franco-Tunisian production The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet, 2007), which in English is also known as Couscous and Mullet and Couscous.  Written and directed by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, this film received César Awards (the highest film awards in France) in 2008 for Best French Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Most Promising Actress (Hafsia Herzi).  Perhaps because the film has a cultural perspective of particular interest to the French – the nuances of French-Arab social and cultural relations – it has attracted a particularly enthusiastic response from the French public and critics.  But English-language critics have also been generally highly supportive [1-5], although not uniformly [6].  From my own perspective, I would say that there are some interesting positive and negative peculiarities about the film, which I will discuss below. 

The film’s story concerns events surrounding a Tunisian immigrant, Slimane Beiji (played by Habib Boufares), who is an elderly dockside worker in the French Mediterranean seaport town of Sète.  Very early on in the piece, the viewer learns that the 61-year-old Slimane is a rather deliberate (and hence not quick enough) worker and that, due in part to declining import traffic at the port, his work is of reduced value to his employers, and so his hours are to be reduced.  Slimane suspects that soon he may even be let go.

Slimane has been working in the Sète docks for thirty-five years and presumably immigrated to France during the wave of Tunisian immigration that began in the 1960s following Tunisian independence.  His six children, being second-generation Tunisians in France, are much more comfortable with French and the French way of doing things.  That and the fact that Slimane is a particularly stoic and laconic individual mean that much of the film’s focus turns out to be on Slimane’s family and acquaintances.  They are a varied lot, the most prominent of whom are listed here:
  • Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) is Slimane’s vigorous ex-wife and the mother of his six children.  She is an excellent cook, and couscous is her specialty.  Every Sunday evening her extended family comes over to her home to feast on it and gab with each other.
  • Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) owns a tiny dockside hotel and is Slimane’s current partner.
  • Rym (Hafsia Herzi) is Latifa’s twenty-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage.  Because of her mother’s relationship with Slimane, she feels filial affection for Slimane and wants to help him.
  • Karima (Farida Benkhetache) is a married daughter of Slimane and Souad and has two little kids.
  • Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani) is a younger, but still adult, daughter of Slimane and Souad.
  • Majid (Sami Zitouni) is Slimane Souad’s eldest son.  Although married and with a young  son, he pursues adulterous sex with other women.
  • Julia (Alice Houri) is a Russian immigrant and is Majid’s neglected wife.
  • Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem) is Slimane and Souad’s youngest son.
A key weakness of The Secret of the Grain, however, is its generally slack narrative.  Instead of keeping an eye on the primary issue, which concerns what should be done about Slimane’s situation, it often gets sidetracked and wallows at times into various situations with Slimane’s family members, which seem little more than distractions.  And so what we often wind up with are extended sessions that, although featuring dramatic intensity, slow things down.  Paradoxically and at the same time, though, some of these intense encounters are what we take away as the film’s most memorable moments.

Overall, we can consider the narrative to be divided into three general sections.
1.  Slimane and his family
The first part of this section starts with an overview of Slimane’s dockside situation.  But then it moves, rather quickly and without much narrative motivation, over into a surveying coverage of his extended family.  The main vehicle for presenting the family together is Souad’s weekly couscous feasts, and the family are seen gathered around the table and enthusiastically gorging themselves on Souad’s cooking.  This is all shown using extreme wide-angle closeups, often with disruptive jump-cuts.  And it is all done with a shaky handheld camera.  This has a strange, disturbing effect, because the extreme facial closeups place the invisible viewer much closer to the faces under scrutiny than would be the case for someone occupying a place at the table.  Instead the viewer is placed almost on top of the respective person in view and is subjected to uncomfortably observing their eating in all its lip-smacking squishiness.  This is presumably intended to establish intimacy with the subject matter, but it didn’t work for me.  In fact the shaky handheld, wide-angle cinematography throughout the film is atrocious and is a considerable detriment to the overall viewing experience.

2.  Slimane’s project
After awhile Slimane decides to leave his dock-working job and use his redundancy payments to start his own business – a seafood/couscous (“la graine et le mulet”) restaurant to be situated inside an abandoned cargo ship at the dockside.  The featured food will be Souad’s couscous.  All of the family members pitch in to help with this project in whatever way they can.

A major problem to be surmounted with this project is securing all the licenses and permits that are needed from the government, and much of the focus of this section of the film is on this issue.  In this connection Rym comes to Slimane’s rescue as she passionately and patiently guides him through complex pathways of the government’s bureaucratic channels.  It is during this phase that Rym emerges as the real star of the film.

3.  Opening Night
After failing to get all the required permits, Slimane and his family resolve to hold a party at their new, not-yet-commissioned restaurant and invite all the city officials, including the recalcitrant ones.  They hope to wow their guests with good food and thereby get them to approve their remaining permit requests.  This turns out to be a lavish affair, and again the focus is on food.  But there is also on display the interesting contrast between French behavior (the guests) and Tunisian (the servers).  However, a serious problem arises when Majid’s narcissistic perambulations cause the crowning dish of the evening – Souad’s couscous – to go missing.  There ensues desperate efforts on the part of several principles to rectify the situation.  Some people try to find the missing dish, while others set about the arduous task of making a second batch.

Meanwhile, the hungry guests are waiting for their main dish and getting seriously impatient.  So Rym decides to entertain them all by performing an Arabic belly dance.  The passionate earthiness of Rym’s dance highlights the contrasts between French and Tunisian culture, and it arouses the rapt enthusiasm of the no-longer-bored dinner guests. 

So now the film is suspended in unbearable tension.  The guests are waiting.  The servers are scrambling.  And Rym is dancing.  What will happen?  Kechiche draws out this tense situation for an almost unbearable length of time.  In fact he seems to extend it indefinitely, as you will feel if you watch the film’s conclusion.

As I mentioned, there are some intense individual dramatic situations focusing on a single character that Kechiche dwells on for extended periods. 
  1. Julia engages in a long tearful tirade about her sufferings brought on by her irresponsible and unfaithful husband, Majid.
  2. Rym implores at great length for her jealous mother, Latifa, to attend Slimane’s opening night party, even though the featured food has been prepared by her paramour’s ex.
  3. Rym’s lengthy, exhausting, and fleshy belly dance.
These moments in the film hold the viewer in an extended emotional storm that has its own peculiar fascinations, irrespective of their pertinence to the overall narrative.  And they do exhibit a certain degree of moment-extending skill on the part of Kechiche and his actresses.

I have already alluded to three major themes in The Secret of the Grain – food, family, and Franco-Tunisian cultural contrasts.  There is a fourth theme worth mentioning – womanhood.  All of the women in this story are relatively responsible and ready to take the initiative.  The men around them are mostly powerless, and sometimes irresponsible.  This reminds me of another “food film”, The Fish Fall in Love (2006), in which the principal women had more initiative and more emotional fortitude than the men they encountered.  I wonder how much this is generally the case in food films.  In any case, your response to the film will depend on the degree to which the film’s presentation of these four themes resonate with your own feelings.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Secret of the Grain”, RogerEbert.com, (21 January 2009).    
  2. Philip French, “Couscous”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  3. Peter Bradshaw, “Couscous (La Graine et le Mulet)”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  4. Wesley Morris, “The Secret of the Grain: No Secrets”, The Criterion Collection, (27 July 2010).   
  5. J. Hoberman, “The Secret of the Grain”, The Village Voice, (24 December 2008).   
  6. Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban, “SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE”, Urban Cinefile, (n.d.).   

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