Secrets of the Grain

“The Secret Of the Grain” refers to the Tunisian dish of couscous. Couscus makes itself known as the centerpiece of a meal gathering generations of a family at the dinner table every Sunday in Sete, a seaside town in southeastern France feeling the heat in the recession of the shipping and fishing industry. The extended family is presided over by their matriarch, Souad, who prepares the couscous along with vegetable soup and fried, fresh yellow mullet (a small Mediterranean fish) week in and week out at her spartan apartment. Alas, their 60 year old patriarch, Slimane, is never present at these bountiful, boisterous, and highly satiating meals. Slimane and Souad, Tunisian expatriates, divorced years ago and live apart. Souad got the apartment while Souad must settle for a Lilliputian flophouse in a down on its heels hotel peopled by poor, itinerant musicians and run by Slimane’s lover. In fact, his sons look on as Slimane solitarily eats his bowl of couscous and fish in his flophouse. Yet, Slimane becomes the glue that holds the whole family together. He has worked as a boat constructor and rebuilder for close to 35 years and the lines on his wizened face clearly attest to that. Slimane dutifully pays alimony, cares for his doting grandchildren, and drops by his ex-wife’s apartment with fresh mullet on a daily basis. Sadly, he gets the pink slip and must look elsewhere for work. All of which builds up to Slimane realizing his dream of opening a couscous restaurant on a decrepit though arduously retrofitted old ship, which Slimane refurbishes along with his sons.

Slimane goes from bank to bank and permit office to licensing office to fulfill the requirements of opening a restaurant. Alas, he comes up short and ultimately has a free grand opening to show his prospective investors what a superb restaurant it will be where he plans on serving his ew-wife’s justly famous couscous meal.

More than mere plot points and episodic events, “The Secret of the Grain” is simply and dramatically about family dynamics with Slimane as the stoic, static, ubiquitous presence. Astutely, the director- Abdel Kechiche- involves us in the lives of these people not as voyeur but rather as active participants. Whether documenting a mother desperately trying to potty train her daughter or Majid (Slimane’s son) aimlessly philandering with a bevy of women to the constant consternation of his long-suffering French wife, Slimane’s dynamic family could very well be our own. And that really says something about this little though indisputably profound film.

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