The Secret of the Grain aka Couscous with Fish

It takes will, courage and determination to realize a dream. But most of all it takes family.”

The Secret of the Grain (2007) aka La Graine et le Mulet, is a French film directed by Abdellatif Kechiche that walked off with the Cesar, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay in 2008.

Set in a seaport city in southwest France called Sete – it begins as the story of an older man, Slimane Beiji, portrayed by  Habib Boufares, who has worked at shipyard for 35 years both on and off the books. But due to the economics of the times, business is slow, and Slimane has been given a cut-back schedule. Part-time is better than no time, they say. However, the boss says he has his orders and soon we will find that Slimane has been laid off.

But before that layoff becomes known, the story opens up into a family situation drama and we see little of Slimane for a while. We meet his family including his ex-wife, his grown sons, and daughters,  and their families. However, the way we meet them is to join the extended family, minus Slimane himself, for the Sunday afternoon meal.

Slimane is divorced (what’s that you’re asking – no, he is not French Catholic, instead he is Tunisian, and is behind with his alimony payments to his ex-wife. His children are grown with families of their own as well as their own problems. Slimane lives at a small waterfront hotel and has been having an affair with the hotel’s proprietress.

There’s your set up for the first third of this 151 minute film, the highlight of which is this Sunday afternoon meal. It is a densely populated scene in a rather small apartment with about a dozen people at the table. The camera is in close with only an occasional back up to show the entire table or something other than a solo shot. The conversation is chaotic, with many people talking, often at the same time. As I said it is dense.

I can’t even begin to imagine how this scene was scripted. Or how long it took to be edited into what we see. The camera moves continually from one person to another. It is nearly chaotic, often disconcerting, and probably too long. But we do meet this extended family. We watch as the conversation continues – they eat, they laugh, and they pick the fish bones out of their mouths.

After a while it doesn’t seem like a film, it sounds and looks like a real family. Everything is discussed from marital infidelities to one of the son’s two-year old daughter who is not doing well in her potty training. So maybe it was, at least partially, a real family – as the director did cast many amateurs for the film. They banter, they tease, they flirt – sometimes charmingly and some other times it is almost brutally honest – and by that I mean almost painfully so, as you see very realistic reactions.

In the middle section, we learn that Slimane has gotten his severance package, has acquired a near derelict boat tethered to the quay, and he wants to realize his lifelong dream – which is to open a restaurant which serves his ex-wife’s fish & couscous.

Rym and Slimane

He and the daughter of the hotel owner, go around to the banks, and the various agencies for loans, zoning, permits, certificates of inspection and so forth. It now that the daughter, Rym, marvelously played by Hafsia Herzi, takes center stage and steals the film. Just so you know, Roger Ebert opened and closed his review of this film discussing this actress. He loved her.

The middle part of the film was brilliant in one sense, and yet was also difficult. While Rym did most of the talking for them, the other side of the conversation was either a bank loan officer, a municipal clerk, a city official, or some other functionary of the government. They were all French – and while the conversations were civil, you could see that these folks were either talking down to Slimane and Rym, or making things seem more difficult than they ought to be, or in some cases – there was more than a hint that the French official had disdain for his his fellow citizen of the city – merely because they were Tunisian, not French, even though they had lived in the city long enough for Slimane to be a grandfather.

While the city and the banks and bureaus do their thing, we meet a group of Slimane’s friends and neighbors who are discussing the issue. The hotel owner, Slimane’s girl friend, is put out because she expected that Slimane would use some of his severance money to fix her hotel, and she’s jealous that the ex-wife will be the chef, or at least the couscous maker. As one man said, it is a weird situation.

Eventually a plan is hatched. The boat  (bateau) is repaired and made to look almost new. Slimane will throw a grand dinner party on the boat, inviting the city heads, investors, insiders, and so forth in the hope that they will like the idea, love the food, and will want to invest. The restaurant’s staff will be his family. His friends will provide the music and entertainment.

The dinner party itself takes up the last third of the film. Without giving anything away, I’ll tell you that there are more than a few crises in this last act. Hafsia  will surprise you with what she does, and Julia, the daughter-in-law, has a tirade that has to be seen to be believed. The story has it’s resolution which takes us back to the opening of this review. Only it’s not just family. It’s also friends.

The film is long, far too long. But it is a story that you will admire. It is provocative, and many things about families are brought to the fore, including stuff that usually is kept within a family. In this film – the ‘dirty laundry’ is brought right out where we can see it.  The film is striking in that it voices an appeal for minorities, for wives, for children of all ages, and for parents.

This last third of the film has a number of ‘suspenseful’ moving parts to it. They work to a degree but without really being edge of the seat types of suspense. You might say that these moving parts are like the wheels which hit some rough patches but they don’t fall off.

In the end, it doesn’t matter than you are watching a Tunisian family in the south of France having their issues, their problems, and their sorrows. People are people wherever you find them. You may not know these people, or understand their French language – but for sure, you will connect with them.

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