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With: Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Farida Benkhetache, Abdelhamid Aktouche, Bouraou•a Marzouk, Alice Houri, Leila D'Issernio, Abelkader Djeloulli, Olivier Loustau, Sabrina Ouazani, Mohamed Benabdeslem, Bruno Lochet, Cyril Favre, Sami Zitouni, Mohamed Karaoui
Written by: Abdel Kechiche
Directed by: Abdel Kechiche
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, Arabic, with English subtitles
Running Time: 154
Date: 09/03/2007
IMDB

The Secret of the Grain (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Couscous Seduce

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Abdel Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain turned up in America late in 2008 and made a few critics' top ten lists. But in France, it was a major critical success and placed on Cahiers du Cinema's list of the ten best films of the decade. (On Film Comment's list of the best of the decade, it came it at #125.) This could be due to a cultural level that French people could see in the film that Americans could not appreciate; it takes place in the world of Arabs living in France and speaking mostly French. But Americans can definitely appreciate that -- at the very least -- it's one of the best food movies of the decade.

Kechiche, who appeared in the American film Sorry, Haters (2005), directs with long, loving takes, creating organic conversations and conflicts. The film runs 154 minutes, and though it feels epic in scope, the individual minutes and scenes just fly by; they're totally absorbing. They range from a noisy family dinner to an intense conversation between a mother and daughter.

The hero of the story is Slimane (Habib Boufares), a divorced grandfather who still interacts with his family on a regular basis. (The film cleverly introduces us to each of the characters when he tries to deliver an unwanted box of fresh fish to all of them.) His job repairing boats suddenly comes to an end, and he finds himself at a crossroads. His sons suggest that he go back to "the old country," but his girlfriend's daughter, the sensuous Rym (Hafsia Herzi) -- who seems closer to him than any of his blood relations -- shows anger on his behalf. She helps him take the first steps in realizing his dream, to open a restaurant on a boat and serve his ex-wife's much-loved fish couscous. (Like the best food movies, it had me craving this luscious-looking dish.)

This plot synopsis makes it sound like one of those glossy Miramax arthouse hits, but Kechiche is working on a more primal level here. All of the various, random plot threads, including a sexual affair that one of the family members has with a white woman, come to a head during the restaurant's opening night party. Kechiche crosses them with expert skill, building an unexpected level of suspense. But the real focus is on both food and sex and the frustration of being so close to -- and yet so far from -- each. In the film's glorious climax, the various sisters try to keep the customers happy with booze. (The cheating son has cluelessly absconded with the couscous.) Meanwhile, Rym decides to entertain the guests with an increasingly sexual, sweaty, seductive belly dance. And while Slimane has gone out to look for the couscous, three young punks steal his motor scooter and taunt him with it.

Each of these crossing sequences has something to do with frustration, and the movie ends on just such a note, right on the verge of a payoff, but without the catharsis of actually getting to see it. It's possible that the French understood this more deeply than we spoiled Americans ever could, but I suspect that there is still an audience of smart, tuned-in American viewers that will find a small treasure in The Secret of the Grain.

The Criterion Collection has released the film on a beautiful Blu-Ray, approved by the director. There are interviews with the director and some of the cast, an extended, re-edited belly-dancing sequence, and a video interview with film scholar Ludovic Cortade (in English), which sheds some light on the French perspective of the film.

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