Movie Secrets of the GrainAbdel Kechiche is getting a lot of press these weeks for his daring love story of two woman, daringly shown, in Blue Is The Warmest Color.

Born in Tunis and moving to France when he was six, he earlier came to attention for his 2007  couscous of a film, The Secret of the Grain, about Tunisian-French residents of Sète, a southern French fishing town.  It’s a rare film about working class people, a step away from impoverishment, when hard labor ages and exhausts and family capital is more certain than financial.  Picking up from the family comedy genre the French themselves do so well, Kechiche ratchets it up to a noisier, more raucous level and perhaps in the end, over feeds us. 

Slimane [] is a 61 year old ship yard worker who, having worked on the docks for 35 years, is unceremoniously laid off.  With a small severance payment, and not wanting to be a kept man by turning it over to his long time woman friend for her hotel, he sets out to make a floating couscous restaurant — using his ex-wife’s culinary skills.  With his first wife, a couple of lazy young sons and a couple of fiery daughters living in close proximity and a family at the hotel including Rym [] his main supporter, and heart-throb of the movie, the daughter of the inn keeper,  there is a lot in play.  A young mother beside herself because her two year old won’t use the potty, one married son who won’t keep his hands off other women, his wife screaming in such sustained anguish that we are uneasy at our lack of reaching out to her.  She tells Slimane that  “Majid thinks France is one big whore house!”  In the midst of the chaos Slimane as the doting grandfather, quiet to the point of muteness.

After opening scenes of Slimane at work and being laid off we enter into a long family Sunday meal, crowded into a small apartment, hunkered over mama’s couscous and in close up after close up meet the family, quarreling, joking –all in French with a few asides in Arabic–  eating (with fingers and succulent pulls on them), sons and daughters, daughters-in-law and sons-in-law. Slimane is not there.  Though it’s never said, one thinks his extraordinary quietness, in a small room in the hotel, is a reaction to the noise of his family, that and his sense of failure, of not having left anything, which is movingly shown in a short failed encounter with his mistress.

In some ways the most engaging moments of the movie are Slimane and Rym,  his ‘step-daughter,’ making the rounds of the French officials to get the necessary permits  to open a restaurant: the bank for a loan, the health officials, the port authority for pier space.  It seems endless and Slimane the stubborn but quiet on-looker as Rym explains, argues, promises to do more and takes him off to the next functionary.  It is not clear at all the project will come to fruition.

Eventually his hard work along with some help from his sons and Rym’s constant spark-plugging, puts a fine floating restaurant in place, towed to one of the only spots available on a disreputable pier.  Instead of opening to the public he decides to throw a big party for the big-shots of town, those who might invest and those who still have to approve the final permits.  Mama is to prepare the couscous — the main course after many appetizers created on the boat– in her own kitchen.  The sons are to serve the liquor and get the dinner to the boat.  The daughters are to serve the guests– including a table of competing restauranteurs who are worried that his couscous with mullet might draw customers away from them.  It is remarkable how Kechiche controls the tension as the party begins — we are sure there is going to be a calamity.  And sure enough, after many possibilities are side stepped, there is.

Though his first family arrives en masse to help, his second one, Rym and her mother, are delayed as they argue over appearing.  Rym is an amazing blaze of tongue and emotion as she alternately berates and praises and pleads with her mother who doesn’t want to go — in anger at Slimane’s decision and absence from her life and fear of mockery by the others — especially the wife, who did the cooking!  They do arrive and in the midst of the anticipated disaster Rym displays her attributes and impassioned belly dancing, which the French guests can not believe they are seeing and so the feast for the eyes displaces the intended feast for the tongues.

It’s a very engaging film, showing us as so many good movies do, how we recognize ourselves, or our families and friends, through the differences displayed in others.  The script and acting for a very “talky” movie are excellent, especially with what I take to be a mostly Tunisian-French cast, and much of it nonprofessional.  I would guess much was semi-rehearsed improvisation, especially in the long Sunday meal sequence.  The camera moves around easily — where could it have been in that tiny room?– so we are the unobserved observer with the best view in the house.  Kechiche does go on a bit long, however.  I mentioned in a review of Torn that the director could have used another ten minutes so the landing wouldn’t be so abrupt.  Kechiche could have shaved ten or more minutes off the 2:34 minute running time –a nip here, a tuck there.  Even the fascinating belly dance, in which we see frame-fulls of a most engaging shimmer and shake, ran on too long.  As a result, even in the midst of our engagement with the characters and story, we fell a bit fidgety.  “Yes!  Yes, I get it.  But what’s happening in the kitchen?”  She keeps dancing.

This long, unblinking eye makes me think twice about going to see Blue Is The Warmest Color. What is, at some unspecified length, languorous and patient observation of love-making becomes at some point, obsessive, voyeuristic.  I want to see a story, not a long tangle of limbs. Even the rub of erotica can turn to friction and irritation. I will, however, look for Hafsia Herzi in another of her movies.

The Secret of the Grain has been awarded several prizes, starting with the Special Jury prize at Venice in 2007.  It gets a 7.3 rating at IMDB and a 74% audience rating at Rotten Tomatoes, though 92% of working critics liked it.

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