Criterion // 2010 // 154 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 21st, 2010
It takes will, courage and determination to realize a dream. But most of all, it takes family.
"Make a restaurant out of a boat? Maybe he has a screw loose."
Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is a dock worker and the patriarch of a French Arab family. He's been working hard at the same job for 35 years, but lately work has been slow and Slimane's employer has decided to lay some people off. Unfortunately, Slimane's emphasis on doing quality work doesn't mesh with his employer's desire for greater efficiency, so Slimane is let go. After spending some time contemplating his situation, Slimane takes the advice of those close to him and determines to go into business for himself. His plan: to open a couscous restaurant inside a beaten-up old boat that he has inherited. The plan is a pretty huge financial risk for a simple man like Slimane, but if he's successful the new job could grant him a great deal of peace and freedom.
Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain is a deceptively involving film. It spends two and a half hours unfolding a very simple plot, but it's never dull or bland. It's made in a rambling, naturalistic, slice-of-life manner yet contains very intense and carefully-timed moments of drama. It's a film that really does have to be seen to be appreciated, as the central idea admittedly sounds a bit dull on paper: an old guy loses his job and decides to open a restaurant. However, in Kechiche's hands this tale is not only emotionally involving but also quite thrilling. In an essay included in the booklet that accompanies this release, Wesley Morris persuasively insists that The Secret of the Grain is, "every bit as much a thriller as The Wages of Fear or Blood Simple."
As with The Wages of Fear, it's quite a long time before the tale's tension starts to set it. The first hour of the movie devotes its time to simply introducing the large ensemble of characters and their complicated relationships with each other. Slimane is opening the restaurant, but he's using food that will be cooked by his ex-wife (Bouraouia Marzouk). His current wife's daughter (Hafsia Herzi) is handling many of the business arrangements, and Slimane's children from his first marriage are all participating in assorted ways. There are numerous tensions running through the relationships of these individuals, all of which must be carefully established before Kechiche starts driving towards the restaurant's opening.
Suspense starts seeping into the film the moment that Slimane determines that yes, he's actually going to go for this. There's a terrific sequence in which Slimane and his step-daughter go from one place to another attempting to gather the assorted loans and permits needed for this endeavor. It's a frustratingly circular trip, as it's difficult to get one portion to commit itself until another portion has done the same. Another masterful scene comes a bit later, as the step-daughter attempts to convince her mother to actually come to the restaurant and enjoy the festivities with everyone else (the mother is quietly bitter about the fact that her husband is in business with his ex-wife).
The cast is pretty much comprised of unknowns, but strong work is done across the board. Boufares is quietly compelling as Slimane, a man who seems hesitant to express himself emotionally. He just wants to work and provide for his two families; he'd rather not get caught up in drama. Even so, any man with two families (or one, for that matter) is bound to be pulled into drama of some sort at some point. The best performance comes from young Hafsia Herzi, who proves equally effective in moments of charming conversation and intense drama. Fortunately Herzi has found steady work in wake of this film's release; she's far too gifted to remain an unknown.
The film climaxes with a sublime, lengthy sequence in which the restaurant is opened; a suspenseful blend of frantic cooking, running, and belly-dancing (you'll see). There's remarkable tension to be found in chaos of attempting to pull off the feat of feeding a room full of noteworthy patrons; a level of natural cinematic drama somewhat reminiscent of the spectacular conclusion of Visconti's The Leopard. The scale is certainly smaller than that film, but the level of craftsmanship and emotional involvement is quite similar.
The hi-def transfer is excellent, spotlighting the film's naturalistic digital cinematography quite well. For the most part, The Secret of the Grain has a simple, documentary-style look (though I'm speaking of a more controlled and polished documentary style, not constantly jittery handheld footage). Detail is superb for the most part, with the exception of a small handful of scenes that look a bit soft. Flesh tones are warm and natural while blacks are effectively deep. There's a bit of noise on occasion during some of the darker scenes. The audio is as quite strong as well, though this is hardly the sort of track that's going to make anyone sit up and take notice of its virtues. There is very little music of any sort heard throughout the film and sound design is fairly minimal, making this a dialogue-centered track. Still, everything is superbly distributed and clear.
The supplemental package is an interesting collection of assorted items. You get a 13-minute interview with Kechiche in which the director speaks about why the film is so personal to him, a 22-minute interview with film scholar Ludovic Cortade on the virtues of the film, a 15-minute interview with Herzi, a 12-minute interview with Marzouk and a 16-minute interview with the musicians featured in the film's final sequence. You also get an 8-minute segment of the French television show 20 Heures spotlighting The Secret of the Grain, plus a 46-minute re-edit of the film's final act accompanied by an introduction from Kechiche. Finally, the usual Criterion booklet and a theatrical trailer are included. A strong package overall.
I would never dream of calling the movie dull, but I do think it could stand to be a bit shorter. At 154 minutes, the film seems to take more time than it really needs to establish these characters and their world.
A richly compelling film gets a splendid hi-def release from Criterion. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 154 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* TV Show Excerpt
* Re-edited Sequence