At 151 minutes, The Secret of the Grain is the longest film about couscous you’re ever likely to see. And the best. But is it … good? Let’s put it this way: Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche seems to love his scenario and his actors the way some people love their mom’s cooking — without reservation. We’re the guests, and he doesn’t want us to miss a single bite.
When they hear “French cinema,” many Americans still think of the fast-paced, stylized New Wave films that inspired homegrown cinéastes such as Quentin Tarantino. But in fact, one of the biggest current trends in French — and European — filmmaking is documentary-style realism that captures the lives of desperate or marginal people in long, unflinching takes. Glance at recent winners of the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or: a grim drama about a couple so poor they sell their own child (L’Enfant); a grim drama about Irish independence fighters (The Wind That Shakes the Barley); a grim drama about a young woman seeking an illegal abortion (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days); and — well, you get the idea. In the U.S., the closest we have to these films is Wendy and Lucy. But on the other side of the Atlantic, fantasy is out. Confronting harsh realities with handheld cameras is in.
That’s not to say watching these films is painful — just exhausting, like a well-guided journey through the neighborhoods that tour buses skip. The Secret of the Grain takes place in a depressed French port city, where Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) has toiled for the past 35 years in the shipyards. Now that he’s 60 and no longer “rentable” (profitable), his boss wants to cut his hours — probably hoping, Slimane speculates, to hire a cheaper migrant worker. An immigrant from North Africa, he finds that all his French citizenship gets him is a likely layoff.
Taciturn and dignified, Slimane lives in a shabby rented room, where he enjoys a view of the water and an ongoing amour with his attractive landlady. His ex-wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) complains about the alimony, but she still sends him a plate of her famous fish couscous every Sunday. His daughter (Farida Benkhetache) is an outspoken labor activist; his son (Sami Zitouni) is having a torrid extramarital affair with the wrong woman. In short, Slimane’s large extended family — particularly the women — offers plenty of warmth, wit and drama, and when they assemble for their weekly feast, sparks fly.
It takes the filmmaker roughly half the film to introduce these ingredients, at which point he plops something resembling a plot on our plates. Slimane, it turns out, wants to open a couscous restaurant in a salvaged, docked boat to showcase Souad’s cooking. It’s an ambitious plan for a manual laborer without business experience, but Slimane has a dynamo on his side — Rym (Hafsia Herzi), his lover’s stubborn, high-spirited young daughter. When the bank refuses a loan, she heads for the city permit office. When the city sends her back to the bank, she sets up a special banquet for potential investors. When things go wrong on the big night, she breaks out the sequins and belly-dances.
All this sounds like more fun than it is — and not because the actors ever hit a wrong note. (Herzi won a few European awards, rightly so.) Here’s the film’s essential problem: Kechiche overstays his welcome. He sets up long scenes in which we come to know and love the characters … and then, as the tight close-ups of people conversing drag on and on and on, to wish they would shut up already.
Unlike the chilling 4 Months, which combined long takes with a tight time frame, Kechiche’s film lacks shape. As a result, it may be one of those films that’s more fun to recall or discuss afterward than to watch. A course that sits too long on the table is about as appetizing as couscous sans seasoning. But, considered bite by bite, Kechiche’s opus has flavor aplenty.