The French filmmaker Claude Berri made some remarkable films during his long career. He directed two of my favorites—Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, which starred the young Emmanuelle Béart, Daniel Auteuil, and Gerard Depardieu.
But he was more than just a director. He was an actor, and he served as producer on more than sixty movies. In 2007, two years before his death, he produced a film that won Best Picture, Best Writing, Best Director, and Most Promising Actress at the Césars (the “French Oscars”).
I’ve finally seen that film. It deserves all of the honors it has won. The Secret of the Grain will be remembered as one of the great cinematic feasts of the 2000s.
And I use the term “feast” very deliberately.
If you’re one of those moviegoers who loves to see fine cuisine on the big screen, add this to your must-see list. The Secret of the Grain may be the most ambitious, complex, and suspenseful film about a feast ever to be served at the movies.
To appreciate the film fully, moviegoers must commit themselves to 151 minutes of crowded, chaotic, complicated scenarios. French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche asks us to step outside of our comfort zones, acquaint ourselves with an unconventional storytelling style, and immerse themselves in a foreign environment fraught with trouble, noise, and heartbreak.
But those final forty-five minutes are some of the most excruciatingly suspenseful scenes I’ve experienced as a moviegoer.
To say that Kechiche takes his time in telling this story would be quite an understatement. The Secret of the Grain feels less like watching a movie and more like moving in with a huge, temperamental family who are as reckless in their personal lives as they are at the dinner table.
Welcome to Sète, a French Mediterranean port near Montpellier, where working-class Arab immigrants are trying to make a living despite prejudice and a troubled economy.
We’re drawn into the dramas of a large, loud family from Tunisia. The aging adults are hard-working and traditional, and their French-born children are wild, free, and opportunistic.
It’s remarkable how many characters we meet, and it’s to Kechiche’s credit that we can keep them straight as the story unfolds. His close-ups are so aggressive it’s discomforting. You may find yourself flinching as they shout at one another with their mouths full. Where most foodie movies inspire us with elegant dinners and sophisticated manners, these meals are magnificently messy.
And the stories are as messy as the meals.
The story finds sixty-two year-old Slimane (Habib Boufares), the family patriarch, as he’s being fired after thirty-five years as a dock worker.
This is only the latest of hardships for Slimane, whose life is a failure in so many ways. We fill in the picture as his family talks about him over a lively Sunday dinner. Slimane does not attend. He’s left his wife, Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk), whose specialty—fish couscous—is the main event at their table. He’s failed as a husband and as a provider. And his infidelity has made him a poor example for his sons, one of whom is cheating on a young Russian wife.
His regrets are getting to him, complicating his life in the small, harbor-front hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), where he’s become a surrogate father to her beautiful, enterprising daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi).
Rym seems at first to be a shy and watchful. Then she emerges as a force to be reckoned with. (Watch out for this actress. Roger Ebert was so smitten by Hafsia Herzi, he devoted much of his review to praising her: “I have a feeling it will be, like the first film of Isabelle Huppert, not simply a debut, but an announcement: Here I am, and I am the real thing.”)
Appointing herself as Slimane’s business agent, Rym sets out to drag Slimane from the doldrums and help him achieve an unlikely dream. He has a notion to invest his severance pay in the renovation of an old disintegrating boat. He’ll turn it into a restaurant, and diners will discover the glory of his ex-wife’s famous couscous.
In this way, he can bless his family at last.
As Rym and Slimane chase their dream, they encounter dispiriting racial prejudice, daunting financial obstacles, and complications from skeptical family members. But when Slimane decides to prove the value of his dream by hosting a fancy dinner for the community’s elite, we catch glimpses of hope. If he impresses the right people, he might make something of his later years.
What happens? Well, you’ll have to see it to believe it.
As the family collaborates on the dinner, the scene becomes a furnace of love. They argue. They clash. They make mistakes. But they are fumbling their way toward a future of intercultural endeavor.
As the party goes late into the night, a complication requires Slimane to venture out on a desperate and quixotic quest. He’s within reach of a beautiful dream, but it’s fragile and it hangs by a thread. Watching, I leaned forward in my seat, as if readying to catch it should that thread snap.
Slimane’s harrowing, humiliating act of love for his family is matched only by Rym’s similarly sacrificial act. Her sudden decision will shock audiences every bit as much as it surprises the awestruck diners.
Feast stories have conditioned us to expect inspiration. They usually remind us to savor our lives and chase down our dreams. The Secret of the Grain has other, more difficult issues on its mind. The sins of the father will bring about heartbreaks as big as the film’s exhilarating joys. And its concluding scenes are as startling and memorable as Christopher’s “Hallelujah!” at the end of Babette’s Feast.
As the end credits roll, the music continues, leaving me longing to know—character by character, storyline by storyline—just what will follow for each of them. Before I watched The Secret of the Grain, I knew next to nothing about North African immigrants in France. Now, I know their lives like I’ve lived among them. I care about what happens next. And young Rym, in her passion and wild hope, has me by the heart.
What an unforgettable feast.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.