A tremendous critical success in France, French-Tunisian writer-director-actor Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain is a sprawling yet intimate tale set among the Arab working class of the Mediterranean port Sète.
When sixty-ish Slimane (Habib Boufares) is laid off from the shipyard after 35 years, he conceives a plan to purchase a derelict boat and turn it into a floating restaurant that will feature his irascible ex-wife’s traditional cooking. Immigrant aspirations are bound up in complex family relations. Slimane, who lives with the proprietress of a small harbor-front hotel bar, has four self-absorbed grown children—the most feckless married to a Russian immigrant—and a devoted de facto stepchild in his lover’s feisty daughter, Rym (Hafsia Herzi).
For much of the movie, domestic tumult rules, including a Sunday feast in which Slimane’s offspring chow down on mama’s couscous, while feuding with each other, cracking bawdy jokes, and wondering how to keep their native language. Full of constant movement and continual blather (and shot largely in close-up), the sequence is a prolonged shout-out to the ensemble madness of Mike Leigh or John Cassavetes.
Despite this tour de force—or, perhaps, because of it—The Secret of the Grain can be irritatingly slow-going. The texture is dense, almost viscous. The depressed, impassive, and bottled-up protagonist is a cipher who allows feisty Rym to run interference with the French bureaucracy, securing a bank loan and the necessary permits. In keeping with the thematic of male helplessness, young women get the arias. The 20 minutes that Rym spends badgering her mother into attending the gala opening of Slimane’s restaurant is topped only by the Russian daughter-in-law’s hysterical rant of disaffection.
There’s an inordinate amount of table-setting, but everything comes together in the end—French attitude, family melodrama, heavy drinking, mad Maghreb rhythm. The Secret of the Grain escalates into visceral allegory with an abandon and cruelty that seem positively Romanian. The last 30 minutes more than redeem the preceding two hours. The Saint Vitus dance that Kechiche sets in motion continues beyond the frame of the movie and the life of its characters. J. Hoberman