"The Secret of the Grain" is a film with a lot on its mind. Intense and realistic, equally involved with personal stories and social issues, it takes us inside a slice of France we rarely see and makes our time there hard to shake off.
Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, "Grain" has been a major success in Europe, first winning prizes at the Venice Film Festival and then taking four Césars, the French Oscars, including best picture as well as best writer and director for Kechiche.
"Grain" takes place in the French Mediterranean port of Sète. From its opening scenes, set on a boat taking tourists around the harbor, we're made aware of decline, of a fishing town where fishing is not the flourishing activity it once was, where the local economy is stagnating and everyone is feeling the pressure.
Though we later meet other strata of society, "Grain" focuses on a community of first- and second-generation immigrants from Tunisia (the filmmaker's birthplace), people who have intermarried and consider themselves French even though the French don't always return the favor.
But though these kinds of societal issues are a key aspect of the film, it is first and foremost a family story, a tale of how one man's circle tries to cope with stresses that are at once personal, cultural and political, anxieties that have complicated causes and no easy answers.
The nominal head of the family is 61-year-old Slimane (Habib Boufares), a stoic man with the eyes of a hawk who easily holds the screen though he says hardly anything at all. Though he isn't demonstrative, we understand Slimane's shock after we see him sacked by the boatyard he's worked at for 35 years.
None too happy about this is Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), Slimane's ex-wife, who counts on his salary. Very much the matriarch, she presides over a midday Sunday meal that is one of the centerpieces of the film and a delight to her family, which includes some feisty grown daughters and a philandering son who compulsively cheats on his Russian wife.
Slimane doesn't partake of these meals. He lives on his own, in a declining hotel owned by his current lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui). Intensely masculine despite (or perhaps because of) his silences, he's become a surrogate father to Latifa's vivacious 21-year-old daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi, memorable enough to have won both the César for most promising actress and the Venice festival's award for a debut role).
Perhaps because eating is so central to this culture and this family -- "When there's couscous, the world disappears for me," someone says -- Slimane gets the idea of rehabbing a derelict fishing boat and turning it into a floating restaurant that would feature Souad's legendary fish couscous.
Though there's nothing wrong with this idea, that doesn't stop it from being difficult to put into practice, as Slimane and Rym, who becomes his assistant, have to deal with the subtle and not so subtle racism of the supercilious French bureaucrats who run the town.
The idea also makes life difficult for everyone in both of Slimane's families, many of whom have trouble overcoming their accumulated resentments. No matter where you think this story is headed, "Grain" presents all kinds of unlooked-for incidents that provide food for thought and for emotion.
The strength of "The Secret of the Grain" is how deeply inside this particular family this slow-developing story takes us. Partly it's a question of length (the film runs 2 1/2 hours), partly of a visual style that involves frequent use of close-ups. But mostly, it's a result of filmmaker Kechiche's straightforward yet sophisticated gift for immersing us in a world he clearly knows well. Rather than observing this family, we feel we are part of it, and that draws us in as nothing else can.