|Director Abdellatif Kechiche|
THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN (La graine et le mulet) B+ aka: Couscous France (151 mi) 2007 d: Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by the director, this is a remarkable piece of naturalistic filmmaking using a startlingly realistic ensemble cast that very eloquently examines the interpersonal relations of one particular immigrant family living in Sète, a southern seaside port community in France, a Maghreb cultural and interracial mix of Algerian, Tunisian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, the same city dramatized in Agnès Varda’s LA POINTE COURTE (1955). Slimane (Habib Boufares, a friend of the director’s father, having worked construction jobs together) has worked at the shipyards for thirty-five years, but has only officially been on the books for less than half that, a reference to exploited immigrant labor, so now in his 60’s he is considered expendable when the company decides to make cutbacks. This economic hardship creates tension among his extended family, many of whom have been at odds quarelling with one another. In a close knit French-Tunisian community, family life becomes everyone’s business and may become the subject of gossip and ridicule. Slimane has two grown sons with his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), but lives in a rundown hotel owned by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), along with her nearly grown daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), who feels like a daughter to him, causing a rift between the two sides of the family who vie for his attention. All of this comes to light in a brilliantly composed kitchen sequence where Souad makes her infamous Sunday couscous, but complains she’s not receiving sufficient alimony support for her family (he often pays by bringing fish), where one by one the members of her side of the family are dragged into that kitchen for food and family scrutiny. The adrenaline-paced dialogue is witty and humorous and full of sharp barbs (French critics love regional dialects, with authentic local accents), but doesn’t hide behavior that is deeply disturbing, as the oldest son Majid (Sami Zitouni) is cheating on his Russian wife Julia (Alice Houri), who is an emotional wreck, but bravely pulls herself together at the behest of the strong-armed aunts, Karima (Farida Benkhetache) and Lilia (Leila D’Issernio) who appear to relish their role of chiding each and every member of the family. The close ups on their faces as they eat adds a kind of improvisational intimacy while the roving camera by Lubomir Bakchev continually moves in and out of the discussion, giving the audience a good read on everyone present. It is no accident that Slimane is not there, but he is referred to throughout as if he was. The sons bring him a plate of food to his room afterwards, which he shares with Rym, who simply devours it with relish as the boys can’t take their eyes off her, stunning in her beauty as well as her free-spirited boldness.
While this showcases humanistic filmmaking, what must be foremost on the audience’s mind at this point is the extraordinary strength of some of these women, whose aggressive nature is expressed not only by their personal charm and domineering personalities, but through their relationship with food and their demand that certain customs sharing the food be adhered to and respected, which is their way of including everyone at the table, usually flooding them with attention. There is a maternal affection on display here that is undeniable, as these women are not at a loss for words, and that goes for Rym as well, who is as strongly opinionated as anyone else in the film and is not afraid to share her thoughts. But alongside endearing attributes, constant bickering and resentful backstabbing spews back and forth as well, where the other side of the family is constantly subjected to jealous and vile gossip that becomes a prominent part of this family history. Slimane for the most part, despite fervently appealed to by both sides, refuses to get involved in such talk and pretty much ignores it, as he’s a proud, quiet man with an intensely private life, alienated by society and his family. As so much of this is shot in real time, a mysterious leap ahead comes as something of a surprise. When Slimane decides to fix an old, broken down ship that would otherwise be left for the scrap heap and manage a restaurant onboard run by his family that features his ex-wife’s couscous delicacies, Rym helps him walk through the various levels of city bureaucracy that must grant approval beforehand. They are, of course, met with skepticism and an armful of impossible bureaucratic demands that must be met, “This is France,” we are told, but he goes ahead with his project anyway, culminating with a gala dinner invitation to all those city officials who previously wouldn’t give him the time of day. This dinner debacle that starts out with such promise may leave viewers needlessly infuriated instead. Despite all the accolades this film received, especially by an ecstatic French Press, sweeping the 2008 French César awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Script, and Most Promising Actress (Hafsia Herzi), while also winning the Prix Louis Delluc for Best French film, there is something to be said for the disappointment of the final third, where some are apparently mesmerized, while others just find it amateurish filmmaking with inexplicable editing. In a stunning turn of events, the insightful and provocative filmmaking that worked so well up to this point gets chucked out the window, including the intelligent script, the natural feeling for authenticity, an appealing unprofessional ensemble cast, the exuberant sense of character, a breakout performance by Hafsia Herzi, cultural revelations expressed through such an original intermixing of comedy and drama, and the director’s keen eye for social observation.
What was easily one of the strongest films of the year, a veritable French/North African version of Fatih Akim, a Turkish/German filmmaker who skillfully navigates the immigrant experience, where there isn’t a false note anywhere, descends into a quagmire of utter confusion, turning listlessly monotonous and over-indulgent, extending well over a half hour or more beyond a point of losing credibility. What starts out with dinner music that never stops reveals Julia behind the scenes in a state of panic when she realizes the couscous is missing (still in the trunk of Majid’s car, who is not answering his phone, avoiding an unwanted confrontation with his French mistress who shows up at the dinner), with no food to feed the guests, needing an hour to start another pot. Meanwhile, Slimane hops on his motorbike seeking Souad, but she’s not there, and instead finds his motorbike missing, inexplicably breaking character, trying to become a super hero, chasing after the punks on the other side of the river riding atop his motorbike, only to be mocked and humiliated by them as they string him along, always remaining just out of reach, taunting him the entire time. Blending these two scenarios together, what may initially have been hoped to be one long impressive cinematic crescendo simply fizzles out early on by rather ineptly stringing together a repeated cycle of repetitive images over and over again, matched by the restlessly impatient dinner guests. With no food to serve them, plying them with drinks instead, their obnoxiously offensive comments are turned against the waitressing girls, forcing Rym to fill in as the dancing entertainment purely as a distraction. What is initially met with ecstatic applause turns into a blasé response to a dumbfoundingly prolonged belly-dancing floor show, losing all attempts at eroticism, as it continues well past the point of no return, becoming a flimsy excuse to objectify the female form, with an endless display of close-ups on her undulating belly, a sexist display of the male gaze, a lengthy and exhausting sequence where the initially captivated audience is reduced to bored and interminable clapping that is without a hint of expressiveness, just waiting for it all to be over, intermingled with repeated shots of Slimane chasing after his motorbike, back and forth, like a cyclical round robin that never ends, where any built-up tension is lost and dissipated, like taking all the air out of a balloon, with the audience just waiting for it all to be over, but it continues ad nauseum. The overwrought finale is simply tedious, draining viewers of all interest, then ending abruptly without any satisfactory resolution, an unfortunate expression of truly uninspired filmmaking. This descent from intense fascination to aloof disinterest can only be described as maddening, as this was a terrific film ruined at the end by the director’s own inept choices. Still, considering the level of distinct fascination in the opening two-thirds, this remains a meticulously fascinating study of a particular social milieu that even with its glaring flaws remains one of the better films seen all year.