Secret of the Grain (2007, Abdellatif Kechiche)

I didn’t really get it. The guy introducing the film said that Blue is the Warmest Color was unusual, a departure in Kechiche’s (apparently pronounced keh-SHEESH) cinema, so my first thought was that’d mean the entire movie wouldn’t be handheld extreme close-ups of its characters faces, but apparently the guy only meant a departure in terms of the amount of lesbian sex on display, because the whole first two-thirds of Grain was handheld extreme close-ups. At least in Blue I came to accept the handheld closeups because it’s about the raw emotional state of its lead actress, but this one was more about family relations, so why can I only ever see one person at a time?

The ending cools down with the aggressive close-ups for a while (though they are welcome when Hafsia Hersi starts belly-dancing) in order to show off Slimane’s boat dinner party and to distantly track his run around the harbor after three boys who stole his scooter. But the style changes only to enable the plot to say “fuck you” to those of us who expected a climactic, triumphant meal bringing the feuding family members together. Instead, the troubles we noted in the first half (Slimane isn’t in the best health, his girlfriend’s family and ex-wife’s family don’t get along, his son Majid is a cheater) destroy the dinner and kill Slimane.

Sometimes Kechiche lets a complainer complain, just rant until you can’t bear it anymore, but for the most part it’s enjoyable company, and I agree with some reviews about the great acting, the naturalism of the characters. Loved when perspective suddenly turns to other hotel dwellers, a bunch of old musicians gossipping on the family drama.

60-year-old Slimane lives with girlfriend Latifa and her daughter Rym in Latifa’s hotel, provides food for the rest of his family when he can, but doesn’t eat with them, having a complicated relationship with ex-wife Souad. She ends up cooking for his restaurant, but when the giant pot of couscous goes missing at dinnertime, Latifa, who’d been reluctant to join the party, slips away during Rym’s bellydance distraction and comes back with a pot. If its her own couscous, which is rumored by the musicians to be awful, how did she cook it in time? The movie doesn’t show us what happens when the dance ends because it’s busy killing off Slimane.

W. Morris:

Once that belly starts undulating, the restaurant’s white faces look up, drunk and delighted. In this complexly conceived and realized moment, the dancer uses sex and cultural exoticism to distract tables of formerly civilized but suddenly restless white natives. Slimane’s daughters watch with a mix of personal envy and ethnic shame. But Kechiche invites us to acknowledge a fundamental truth about Arabs—or any people of color—in the history of the movies: stereotypes sell. It’s an astounding scene, even aside from the suspense that inspires it in the first place. Kechiche’s ideas of ethnicity, enterprise, and canny self-exploitation are conscious.

Won awards in Venice the year Lust, Caution got gold and took the film and director Cesars (over Diving Bell and the Butterfly, La Vie en Rose and Persepolis!). Hafsia Herzi (Rym) later costarred in House of Tolerance.