THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN Criterion Blu-ray Review

     August 13, 2010

Just like the belly-dancer who performs in its climactic scene, The Secret of the Grain is a film padded with fat.  The dancer unashamedly jiggles her ample midriff and writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche unapologetically fleshes out his bare-bones plot to a plump two-and-a-half hours.   Whether or not you can appreciate the movie depends almost entirely on your attitude towards all this fat.  My review of the DVD is after the jump.

The Secret of the Grain is a French film which won five awards at the 2007 Venice Film Festival and four (including Best Film and Best Director) at the 2008 César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars).  Ostensibly, it is about Slimane, a 61-year-old Arab immigrant who loses his job on the docks after 35 years and tries to open a restaurant so that he will have a legacy to leave his family.  In truth, though, the movie is not about the plot, but about the people who inhabit it.  I use the word “people” and not “characters” here since character seems too trite a word for the living, breathing persons who populate The Secret of the Grain.  Using both professional and amateur actors alike, Kechiche has – in a work of pure fiction – brought truly real people onto the screen in a way that few directors ever have.  Through the lens of Kechiche’s handheld camera, we see the intimacies of everyday life in lower-class France.

Rather than telescoping scenes, as most filmmakers do to speed up their films, Kechiche relishes the minute details of human life.  He lingers on people enjoying a delicious meal, allowing us to savor it along with them.  He allows us to watch Slimane with his various family members, showing us slowly through his body language how he feels towards each of them.  At a crowded dinner party Kechiche shies away from wide shots, preferring closeups, bringing us near enough to see the food stuck to a man’s palate as he laughs and the bits of couscous lingering unnoticed on the edges of a woman’s mouth as she talks.  His mastery of creating organic dialogue puts the likes of David Mamet to shame.

But of course, Mamet never really wanted to create truly natural dialogue, he only wanted everyone to think he had.  Because the ugly truth is that – to most of us – other people’s daily conversations are incredibly boring.  Just as most Americans, perpetually feeding on the lie that a woman must be unnaturally skinny in order to be sexy, would fail to appreciate the sensual appeal of a plump girl belly-dancing, they would also find The Secret of the Grain to be  over-indulgently long and tedious.  But the movie basks in the beauty of humanity.  It glories in the cellulite rippling as a dancer gyrates skillfully and it sanctifies the silent moments between two people which define their relationship.

As a portrait of humanity, The Secret of the Grain is a genuine masterpiece.  However, few Americans go to the movies seeking out realistic portraits of humanity.  Which is why the film performed so poorly in the US (under $90,000) compared with Europe ($14 million).

Thankfully, though, The Criterion Collection has now made this film readily available to those of us who missed its limited American run.  Like most of Criterions releases, The Secret of the Grain‘s 2-disc DVD is beautifully mastered and full of extras.  Among the many things included are the theatrical trailer (which I always appreciate) and both new and older interviews with Kechiche, César-winning actress Hafsia Herzi, and others.  It also includes a 45-minute short film by Kechiche which is essentially just a long edit of Herzi’s climactic belly-dance (yes, its really 45 minutes long).

The Secret of the Grain may not be the kind of movie that will appeal to most readers, but those who appreciate its love for humanity will adore this film.

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