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Blu-Ray Review: ‘The Secret of the Grain’ Frames Life in Close-Up

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CHICAGO – Not to be confused with “The Secret in Their Eyes,” “The Secret of Kells,” or “The Secret,” this French family drama is saddled with a most unfortunate title for its American release. Though the picture’s original title, “The Grain and the Mullet,” may not sound like an upgrade, it offered an intriguing metaphor for the film’s unlikely union of two unforgettable characters.

The first is Slimane, played by Habib Boufares as an aging, exhausted man who can’t seem to catch up with the ever-changing world. His thirty-five years of laborious work at a shipyard job are brought to a screeching halt when his boss fires him for not working fast enough (thus illustrating that speed is valued above quality). As Slimane delivers fish to various members of his family, he’s greeted with hostility by his ex-wife (Bouraouïa Marzouk) and begrudging affection by one of his daughters, Karima (Farida Benkhetache). The last person Slimane visits is Rym (Hafsia Herzi), the young daughter of his current girlfriend, and the film’s undeniable life force. It is Rym who helps the weary patriarch make a solid attempt at realizing his dream of opening a seaside restaurant, which Slimane hopes will build a legacy for his four struggling children.

HollywoodChicago.com Blu-Ray Rating: 4.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 4.5/5.0

This deceptively simple premise sets the stage for one of the most intensely involving ensemble pictures in many a moon. It marks the third directorial effort from Abdellatif Kechiche, a veteran actor who is clearly fascinated by the mystery and intricacies of human behavior. His films all focus on the lives of Arab immigrants in France, yet they are refreshingly devoid of cultural or ideological stereotypes. “The Secret of the Grain” runs for over two-and-a-half hours, and consists primarily of intimate interactions between characters whose faces are often viewed in close-up. Though this technique may cause some viewers to feel uncomfortable, especially when the characters start downing mouthfuls of couscous, it does allow Kechiche to achieve a raw and visceral authenticity that makes the realism of most pictures look downright staged by comparison. He has the patience to let conversations unfold organically, resulting in sequences that feel more achingly real than any reality TV show. The longer a scene plays out, the more riveting it becomes. When one character breaks down late in the film, her unrelenting discharge of emotion is all the more affecting (and exhausting) since Kechiche refuses to let us look away.

Bouraouïa Marzouk (center) plays the matriarch of a sprawling French Arab family in Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain.
Bouraouïa Marzouk (center) plays the matriarch of a sprawling French Arab family in Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Upon its initial release in 2007, “The Secret of the Grain” won four César awards, including Best Picture. Herzi’s sensational film debut was deservedly honored with the accolade for “Most Promising Performer.” Her scenes with Slimane are especially touching, since he’s lost the ability to adequately express himself, causing her to do most of the talking. She loves him as if he was her own father, and it’s their tender relationship that makes up the heart of the picture. She represents the future (symbolized by the grain), while Slimane embodies the essence of the past (and, to an extent, the mullet), resistant to adapt to his new environment. He can’t help staying present in the lives of his family, most of whom wish he would move back to the old country. His restaurant aims to specialize in his ex-wife’s home cooking, an odd plot development explained midway through the picture by a group of musicians, who function like a Greek chorus. The film’s final act centers on the restaurant’s opening night, and concludes not with a resolution, but with a belly-dance, which manages to be simultaneously moving, heartbreaking, and more than a little sexy.

The Secret of the Grain was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on July 27th, 2010.
The Secret of the Grain was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on July 27th, 2010.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Though the ending is ultimately jarring and unsatisfying, its open-ended honesty is somewhat more substantial than the all-too-happy closing moments of “Entre Nos,” which also told the story of an immigrant family headed by a devoted parent. The co-director, Paola Mendoza, inhabited the role of her own mother, while Kechiche originally intended to cast his own father in the role of Slimane (his father died before production began). Though “The Secret of the Grain” shares several thematic elements with “Entre Nos,” its closest cinematic relative may be Jonathan Demme’s under-appreciated “Rachel Getting Married,” which utilized a similarly immersive documentary-style approach to capture family dynamics in all their complexity, beauty and ambiguity.

“The Secret of the Grain” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), which brings striking clarity to the film’s images, allowing them to appear literally within reach. In an interesting alternative to the usual assemblage of deleted scenes, Kechiche presents a new 45-minute film constructed entirely out of additional footage from the film’s unforgettable belly-dancing sequence. “Sueur” (a.k.a. “Sweat”) doesn’t bring much clarity to the original film’s evasive ending, though it does include a whole lot more high-class belly-dancing from Herzi, filmed in glorious HD. The longer this sequence lasts, the more it begins to resemble the robotic Maria’s dance in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” which she utilized to seduce her zombie-like audience (yet Kechiche amusingly includes shots of audience members who remain uninterested in the surrounding hysteria). The disc also includes an enlightening 13-minute interview with Kechiche, filmed exclusively for Criterion, in which he reveals that the film’s location was changed from Nice (his father’s hometown) to Sete, following his father’s death. There’s also some extended interviews with cast members (including Herzi), and a terrific 21-minute dissection of the picture by French film scholar Ludovic Cortade, who discusses the film’s relation to (and subversion of) “Beur cinema.”

‘The Secret of the Grain’ is released by The Criterion Collection and stars Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Farida Benkhetache, Abdelhamid Aktouche, Bouraouïa Marzouk, Alice Houri, Lelia D’Issernio, Sami Zitouni and Mohamed Karaoui. It was written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. It was released on July 27th, 2010. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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