The Secret of the Grain

I’ve had Bazin on the brain lately, partly in conjunction with spending last week discussing the form and function of criticism as well as reading the Winter 2007 issue of Film International dedicated to Bazin. It’s a provocative magazine (expect a blog on it soon), such as when guest editor Jeffrey Crouse highlights Bazin’s “striking assertion, a dazzlement” traced through the work of Flaherty, Renoir, Vigo, Chaplin, and the neorealists: “In my opinion,” Bazin wrote, “the cinema more than any other art is particularly bound up in love.” This wasn’t rhetorical flare or mere sentiment, but a sustained argument about directorial style. For example: “Rossellini’s love for his characters envelops them in a desperate awareness of man’s inability to communicate,” Bazin wrote. “De Sica’s love, on the contrary, radiates from the people themselves. They are what they are, but lit from within by the tenderness he feels for them.” Crouse writes, “I look forward to the day when film analysis is conducted from an emphasis on love arrangements as Bazin conceived, rather than largely power ones [favored in academia], with the latter being a subset of the former. Imagine the expanded vocabulary and range of concepts one might draw upon so as to delve more precisely into the significance of so many film masterworks.”

I submit that the French film, The Secret of the Grain, which deservedly swept the CÈsars a couple months ago and screened at the Los Angeles COLCOA festival last weekend, is a prime candidate for this kind of analysis. Filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche (L’Esquive) has chosen to tell a story about a North African immigrant family living in the port town SËte in France, and although the narrative strands converge with considerable suspense in the final act, most of the film involves long, lively conversations filmed in close-up that thrust the viewer headlong into the characters’ daily lives. This is a community dear to Kechiche’s heart and he yearns to explore and reveal them in all their vitality. The 61-year-old patriarch is Slimane (Habib Boufares) and he has recently lost his job, which makes it difficult to provide for his two families, his ex-wife and daughters and his current girlfriend and her daughter; so he takes his severance pay and dreams of building a couscous restaurant inside a derelict boat.

This is not a “social issues” film, nor is it a feel-good rags-to-riches culinary fantasy. Some of the characters find themselves burdened with crushing defeats, but none of them are merely victims illustrating a cause or in need of a champion or a tidy plot resolution. Kechiche simply wants us to look and listen to his characters, to spend time in their homes, absorb their energy, mannerisms, and interpersonal exchanges, to recognize their lives.

Kechiche’s technique, inspired by his background in theater acting, is to cast nonprofessional actors–but not for the reasons you might assume. Kechiche requires lengthy rehearsals and a long shoot (in the case of Secret of the Grain, a solid six months) to establish an on-set community that will allow the actors to slowly hone their performances and find their appropriate groove; nonprofessionals simply have more time to dedicate to this. In one sense, the immense work shows on screen, portraying characters and their dense, overlapping conversations with complex, evocative nuance, but it also achieves a naturalism that is so convincing, it seems spontaneously achieved.

It’s no surprise that the intense immediacy of the camera’s gaze is the source of complaints from mainstream reviewers–the Hollywood Reporter balked at the film’s “suffocating close-ups and an overabundance of scenes that go on far too long”–but the film’s visual proximity and immersion is the whole point. One standout sequence takes place at the family’s weekly Sunday dinner, and Kechiche captures a virtual symphony of spirited, candid conversation between the characters as they talk and joke, cajole and tease one another, eat voraciously, praise the food, and debate domestic concerns from modern diapers to language comprehension. At times, speaking with their mouths full and infusing their conversation with implications charged with subtext, the intimacy of the camera is aggressive, even troubling. But it expresses the family’s everyday vitality; at once familiar and other, foreign but never exoticized, the film challenges the viewer to recognize and overcome resistance and share the table with others.

Kechiche has said he highlighted the mullet fish in the French title (literally “The Grain and the Mullet”) because of its biological adaptability, a kind of symbol for Slimane’s resourcefulness in coming to a new country and forging a new life. One can also read “grain” as the potential seed and opportunity enjoyed by his children, and in many ways the film is a comparison between first and second immigrant generations; the sacrifices of the first give way to the freedom and chances of the second, who respond in myriad ways, squandering, entrenching, or eagerly seizing the moment. Through his superlative cast of performers, Kechiche’s family portrait is a doting record of the innate resiliency of this beloved community.

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