The Secret of the Grain, English film release title, which also was released variously as Le Grain et le Mulet and Couscous, is Ahmed Kechiche’s third feature film, which has been reviewed variously by Roger Ebert (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090121/REVIEWS/901219993/1023 ) and A.O. Scott (http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/12/24/movies/24grai.html ), among others, very thoroughly online. My point in this essay is to address some of the issues given short shrift in the reviews, or ignored in totality—issues related to culture.
Basically, the film tells the story of Slimane Beiji, who has worked for 35 years, on and off the books, in the shipyards repairing ships and boats, but in his old age has either become redundant, slow, or as his son-in-law complains, not immigrant enough—i.e. not cheap enough labor any longer now that they are in essence “French” rather than true immigrants. However, throughout the film we never are allowed to forget that Slimane and his family are immigrants, and are treated as such by general social elements. Forced into retirement against his will, Slimane is suddenly struck by the idea of renovating a tattered old ship he’s demolishing into a couscous restaurant selling the fabulous fish couscous his ex-wife is famed for, and for which Tunisia is known. The first part of the film introduces us to Slimane’s character traits, and his extended family, which is very significant for the second part of the film, which renders efforts to get the restaurant renovated, permitted, docked, and operational—all of which require the help of this extended family. Blocked at every turn, Slimane decides to host a huge party aboard the ship, the third part of the film, renovated without the requested bank loan, using his own severance pay, in order to show all the bigwigs of the town that he is indeed capable—with the help of said family and friends—of producing and running the restaurant and thus does deserve their theretofore withheld licenses, permits, and help. Of course the party starts off well, but soon introduces some last minute conflicts when the famed dish can’t be served because the main ingredient, the couscous (the grain), is missing because one son has escaped the party—to avoid detection by one of his mistresses—by driving off in the family car containing the pot of couscous. While everyone else in the family stands around wringing their hands, arguing with each other, and plying the guests with drink because they can’t think of any other option, Slimane takes off on his motorbike to find the missing couscous and son. While he’s gone, several important events happen. His motorbike is stolen while he is in his son’s house listening to his daughter-in-law rant about what a miserable philandering husband the son is, which everyone knows and condones; Slimane then spends a lengthy time running pitifully after some juveniles joy-riding on his bike and taunting him to “come on, catch us, old man”. While he is gone and the guests are getting angry at the party, Rym, the daughter of Slimane’s “mistress” and like Slimane’s own daughter, suddenly appears and dazzles everyone with a lengthy belly-dance, while her mother secretly goes home and prepares a huge pot of couscous to replace the missing grain so that the guests can eat and the party be saved. However, we are left in limbo as to what the outcome of the party, the restaurant plan, or even the various families might be when Slimane can run after the boys on the bike no more, grasps his chest, and slumps prostrate onto the street.
As is my trend, I’m interested in looking at the cultural elements, not necessarily the film aesthetics, except where those aesthetics might have to do with culture. In the instance of this film, I do believe that Kechiche’s manner of langorously filming events, letting them unfold in real time over a lengthy time, is a cultural manifestation of African and North African films when they are not overly influenced by western traditions of time ellipsing cuts and eliminating the quotidian in favor of the “active” character elements. Kechiche variously lingers in several scenes, one in which we are active participants with numerous family and guests around a lunch table eating the ex-wife’s famous fish couscous (the mulet of the title=mullet). The camera is close in on everyone’s face, as the room is small with numerous people seated around a table, and the scene is quite long and nothing hugely important happens—we listen to people talk about dieting, the delicious couscous, whether a husband has learned any Arabic from his wife or taught the children, general table discussion and joking and laughing. This scene goes on for ages it seems, but we do come to know a bit about the people who are going to appear later in the film, even if they are in ancillary roles, they are important to Slimane and thus important to the film. Further, lunch time with couscous and friends, especially on a Friday, is important to linger over, a time to collaborate and collect and be with others, not a meal to rush through either in real life or in screen time. Such loving detailed renditions of moments that may seem mundane real life populate the film. Another instance of this occurs when Rym belly dances for the boat guests—the scene goes on for several dances, cutting from lengthy shots on Rym’s gyrating belly to the guests in thrall and becoming excited by the spectacle. Partly the dance extends for such a long while to emphasize the wait that the guests undergo, and partly the filmmaker attests to Rym’s desire to do whatever it takes to make Slimane’s project successful—which we see throughout the film, and partly the filmmaker thrusts into our faces something which is truly spectacle that the voyeur wants to see but is rarely given such length of time to ingest—the near nude writhing body of a lithesome young woman. While this may be a personal trait of the filmmaker, I also believe it is a trait of African and Middle Eastern filmmaking in general, as said above, in which life’s quotidian nature is worthy of screen time, as it is not in the west, or if it is, it is seen as a somewhat special type of film, such as “My Dinner with Andre”, etc.
Addressing cultural elements otherwise, it is important to delve into the various ways in which the immigrant status is treated in the film. First, we are exposed to Slimane’s disagreement with his severance package due to having had to work “off the books” for quite a number of years, so that his severance pay is quite lower than anticipated and the French employer unwilling to take Slimane’s—or any other immigrant’s—situation into account, since he wants to make money off the immigrant’s dilemma. In fact, as mentioned above, Slimane’s son-in-law even rancors that the shipyards want to get rid of “the French” (which now includes former immigrants) to hire cheaper new immigrants. At the bank to take out a loan for the restaurant renovation and at various public offices seeking permits, Slimane’s immigrant status is constantly an issue even when obliquely. These become even clearer during the dinner conversation at the party Slimane hosts—his invitees all gossip that he won’t get his loan, that he wants a docking location for the boat in a sought after location but won’t be allowed to have it if other non-immigrant boats apply, and in general the public officials on one hand are willing to partake of the party and free liquor and food but are simultaneously unwilling to be lenient towards Slimane after all. In fact, Kechiche paints a rather dismal picture of the attitude that “real” French have towards “immigrant” French. They appreciate the couscous and belly dancing, and ogle Rym as she undulates on stage to quell their irritation at being kept waiting for dinner. While they have little time for her when she’s dressed up in a suit applying for a loan and permits, they are bewitched by her dance in true orientalist fashion.
Another cultural element that is fascinating is when the musicians from L’Hotel Orient (The Oriental Hotel) sit around gossiping about Slimane, his ex-wife, his girlfriend (the owner of the hotel where they, the musicians and Slimane, all live), his project, and other subjects, Kechiche once again follows the gossip in minute detail even though it is not that informative as to the narrative flow of the story. However, once again we are introduced to these characters who come to his rescue—support him by playing all night at the boat party for a free meal of couscous, and support him morally for “going for it”, pursuing a dream rather than just retiring and being “kept” by his girlfriend. Men in the Middle East and North Africa do tend to hang out, drinking coffee and tea and smoking, and gossiping endlessly; this apparently does not change when they change location to France. While the women may gossip and have the domain of the home and the kitchen, or even the domicile of the hotel, the men still remain highly evident in the public domain of the café, the outside world.
Though Slimane is estranged from his ex-wife to a certain extent, and is behind on his alimony payments due to a slow-down of work at the docks, she is still willing to support him by making couscous for 100 guests at the party, she still receives fresh fish from him often, she still makes a plate of Friday couscous for him to eat in his hotel room. There are close family ties even through the divorce, as Slimane’s sons visit him in his hotel room, help him renovate the boat, help at the dinner, and even counsel him on what to do now that he’s retired. In fact, it is their counsel, when Slimane shares his couscous lunch with Rym one Friday, that leads eventually to the idea to do a restaurant. The two boys suggest Slimane even move back to Tunisia, where the wife would let him have their house—although he’s been in France for over 35 years at least—which prompts Rym to harangue at Slimane that the boys have nothing of his own best interest at heart, they don’t respect him anymore, and that they expect him to just fade away. We simultaneously learn of Rym’s closeness to Slimane, that she is like a daughter to him, that she loves him too, and that she still has strong respect for him and disrespect for his sons. In Middle Eastern and North African culture, a man should have the respect of his sons.
The last element I’d like to talk about is the various familial relationships. It is not unusual that Middle East and North African families face divorce or, rarely, multiple wives. In this film we face several interesting familial components dealing with wives. Slimane’s relationship with all his children is strong, though we see that his retirement is weakening temporarily the respect that his son’s have for him—regained once he launches the boat project. But we also see one son a philanderer who receives phone calls from his girlfriends at his mother’s and sister’s house—they are accused of being complicit in his cheating on his wife with young baby. In fact, the sister cajoles the angry wife to calm down, come to lunch, forget the son’s late arrival home—she tries to protect the brother to his wife while then she confronts him in the hallway that his behavior is known to all and is disgusting. Yet son’s—especially elder sons—being coddled and spoiled, no one is really going to confront the son about his behavior. Finally, when Slimane is searching for the missing son and couscous on the night of the party, the hysterical wife lambasts him at length for his complicity in his son’s playboy activities. Slimane can do nothing but leave the house because it is true. Then we have the case that Slimane lives in the hotel his girlfriend owns. What is unusual in Slimane’s case is that he does not marry his girlfriend, for reasons never quite made clear, though he has obviously committed years to the relationship and considers Rym (her daughter) like his own daughter, and she considers him a father. Conflict arises in the movie because the girlfriend feels shamed that Slimane would turn to his ex-wife to make the fish couscous for the restaurant, though as the gossiping old men mentioned above make well known, the girlfriend’s couscous is inedible! Still, she feels betrayed and this breaks down their relationship, and requires quite a bit of convincing from Rym before she will deign to attend the big party on the boat. Yet in the end, it is she who quietly leaves the boat to go home and make a huge pot of grain to replace the missing grain, to “save the day” so to speak, and in essence “save the face” of not only Slimane but his whole extended family. Further, while Slimane’s ex-wife, daughters, and friends all rally to pull off the couscous making, party handling, music making, etc., it is Rym who in essence sacrifices her status as outsider, guest, to perform the sensual and erotic belly dance to assuage the restless and angry guests. Though she had been an integral component of getting the boat ready, from concept to completion, she felt rendered marginal at the party because she was not “family”, yet her dancing puts her squarely in that realm at the opportune moment, as does the couscous making by the girlfriend. They can’t be marginalized any longer, but the film does not let us know anything about a rapprochement between families, an outcome to the party, an outcome for Slimane, because it just ends with Slimane slumped on the distant sidewalk while the girlfriend maneuvers the huge pot of couscous up the ship’s steps. We know the party is saved, but what else?