Anyone familiar with the Western European independent scene may have noticed a subtly momentous trend in the last two years or so; namely, that nebular multiculturalism is finally coming of age artistically, its ever-mobile borders being stalwartly charted before us on the big screen. The best scenes in Tunisian-French writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain resemble the unique protean bouillabaisses found in port cities: Every converging ethnicity offers an indigenous spice to the soup, and the forced relationships coax out flavors you never knew each ingredient possessed. At roughly one-third into this lengthy tale, an extended family of boatmen assemble for its habitual Sunday couscous dinner and the conversation, like the cuisine, mixes Arabic, Berber, French, and Russian. As the talk flits from language to language—through open mouths relishing flecks of pepper and roasted fish—we extrapolate elaborate sexual histories. How did the Arab wind up with the Frenchmen? The African with the Slav? Which children are the fruits of which communions? The film inspires us to locate emotional cognates within this web of characters, some of whom we only see for a few moments.
The family is that of Slimane (Habib Boufares), a first generation Tunisian immigrant in Séte who is recently divorced and laid off from a long-held shipyard position. The storyline, which is gradually teased out from a tangle of filial and romantic confrontations in the movie’s first half, concerns Slimane’s attempts to reestablish himself as patriarch by opening a floating couscous restaurant in the port with his ex-wife’s kitchen skills. Unfortunately, Slimane’s fatigued demeanor makes him a frustratingly passive protagonist: We’re never quite convinced of his entrepreneurial aspirations since he approaches every goal with the expectation of failure. But along the rocky path he enlists the help of his entertainingly loutish sons, his harried but strong-willed daughters, and, in the movie’s best performance, the nubile offspring of his hotelier lover: Rym (Hafsia Herzi), a precociously scene-swiping young woman.
Secret of the Grain achieves a magically verbose realism while developing these characters: The often handheld camera allows us to clandestinely inhabit a seat at the dinner table or in the living room, watching the family members—especially the female ones—dissemble their life woes with trilingual sarcasm. The script overflows with seemingly improvised dialog until we gasp for an act break; and yet, the fleshy climax, which takes place on the Murphy’s law-ridden de facto opening night of Slimane’s restaurant, pales in comparison to the bloated, repetitious scenes containing nothing but bald talk and clashing personalities (this film’s plot is painstakingly organic—not a single character spouts obvious exposition). The story has some of the qualities of producer Claude Berri’s orderly French sagas, but the novelistic lyricism has been replaced with intrepidly exploratory acting: It’s as if Mike Leigh adapted a rural African folktale for the screen, interpolating some of the sacrificial bittersweetness of Hans Christian Anderson.
International directors are discovering that while didactically proclaiming love for a mixed bloodline makes for an absorbing history lesson (the 2D puppet show of Iranian dynasty and revolution in Persepolis was delightful), the human core of the multicultural experience is best represented structurally, in the language of film itself—just as the anticlimactic ending of the aforementioned Persepolis mirrors the continuing flux of the Persian people’s tragedy. Much like Marjane Satrapi’s modernist memoir, Secret of the Grain suggests that the confused condition of a discorporated diaspora is best analyzed metaphorically, through the clumsy blossoming (and subsequent withering) of its female members. It’s not a perfect film, but perfection requires an organization that would instantly betray the racially-crowded French-Tunisian lineage, along with its past, present, and future matriarchs. The film is a rarity becoming increasing more common: a surreptitious creation myth crafted to inspire pride in even the most diverse and elusive of ethnic identities.
Despite the glistening curves and piercingly clear location shots of The Secret of the Grain, my first impressions of the film in 2008 failed to account for Abdellatif Kechiche's visual achievement. Criterion's Blu-ray, essentially an HD clone of the movie's native digital format, realigns the record with resolve. Lubomir Bakchev's often handheld cinematography is deceptively perfunctory; it appears just as free-for-all as the attitude Slimane's family displays at the dinner table until you notice shadows matching the pitch-black of a character's hair, or the artfully rusted color gradient on the side of a boat, or the way the pale French skyline seems to seep into kitchens and hallways and swaddle fleshtones in sun-dipped blue. But the main attraction here are the faces that Kechiche photographs, so often in consoling close-up; there's a raw flatness to the digitally captured 1080p image that offers their tufts of facial hair and incisively emoting eyes an otherworldly power. The sound, in 5.1 surround, is similarly strong, particularly when featuring live music; the clunky, scratchy hands-on experience of handling instruments comes through just as a sonically inviting as the tonalities.
Quoth my perpetually good-sport girlfriend, upon turning to catch sight of the film's frenzied, fleshy peak from the computer desk: "That tummy is…gross." And to be sure, taken out of context, the eroticizing of quivering Arabic flab can appear more than a trifle gratuitous, rather than the stirringly bold cross-cultural observation it forms within the narrative. This is certainly how the short film Sueur (Sweat, in English) comes off. A 45-minute re-envisioning of Hafsia Herzi's show-stoppingly mobile belly, the feature elides the elements of Slimane's plot that provided thematic context, instead rendering a prolonged poetic-party atmosphere that ends with the dinnerless customers of the couscous restaurant's grand opening rising to their feet and bobbing rhythmically to the bongos and strings. While this champions the movie's big, messy family values, it can't help but deemphasize Rym's primitive, bodily sacrifice—a gesture that becomes central to Kechiche's folklorish goals. Far more worthwhile on Criterion's Blu-ray are the supplements that delve into the experience of achieving those goals. Herzi's interview, though not in HD, suggests the strength of Kechiche's calculation with stories of suggested weight gain and endless rehearsal, and the justness of his reward at the Cesars; Kechiche's own featurette reveals him as uncommonly sensitive to emotional nuance within the frame, if a bit overly self-analytical for someone who wears a zip-up sweater beneath a gray blazer. There are a few other interviews with actors, and the musicians who perform during the climax, that describe the challenging if career-enhancing set environment. The booklet contains a spot-on essay by Wesley Morris, who notes that "narrative in this film is second to human nature."
As much about see-food as seafood, The Secret of the Grain is as close to a contemporary fable as we have, and on Blu-ray, life appears to flower from every sexily exposed navel.