Sunday, March 09, 2008

French Film Festival 1

La graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain, Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 2007)
Slimane (Habib Boufares) is a sixty-something immigrant dock-worker who has spent most of his life working for the same small company. Globalisation has spread its tentacles everywhere. Slimane’s company was taken over by a larger one several years ago, jobs have now gone offshore where labour is cheap and work is in decline. Slimane decides to use his modest redundancy payout to renovate a boat and make a floating restaurant, using his own skills and the assistance of his extended family.

I prefer the French title of this film which translates as “the couscous and the fish”. It refers to a dish that the matriarch of the family, Slimane’s estranged wife, Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk), makes as her specialty.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche is himself an immigrant, arriving in France with his family at the age of six. One suspects he draws heavily from his own life experience in crafting this really impressive story imbued with humanity, compassion and intelligence.

I have heard this film being compared to Eat Drink Man Woman, which is fair enough, if not slightly deceptive. Sure, there’s a similar veneration for the art of cooking and how this draws and binds families. But the film casts a wider net than this may suggest. For me, it strongly resembles the humanistic and naturalistic stories of Robert Guédiguian, particularly La ville est tranquille (The Town is Quiet).

The actors are largely non-professionals. The use of long takes, including long stretches of dialogue, is very impressive and suggests that some of the script may be improvisational. I liked the chit-chat, the small details of daily life (like toilet-training a child), that films normally gloss over.

The film has a documentary look and feel and parts are like a fly-on-the-wall at a family gathering. For me, the importance of this is to convey how human this family is, with a rich and warm cultural heritage. In particular, it renders as impotent, irrational fears of Muslim culture.

The film works on multiple levels because it taps into the universal everyday concerns that potentially touch us all in one form or another: prejudice against immigrants, attitudes towards Islam post 9-11, globalisation, ageism in the workforce, the effects of poverty, family breakdown and more. Yet, importantly, the film is not preachy but merely presents life in a matter-of-fact way.

The female performances in the film are particularly affecting, especially the young Hafsia Herzi playing Rym, the daughter of Slimane’s lover, and Leila D'Issernio who plays his Russian daughter-in-law.

At 151 minutes, the film is quite long, though this is not apparent until the final scene, which seems to be prolonged in real-time for a particular effect. On paper, the story looks like something we’ve seen before, but avoids all the clichés we might expect. I loved it.

The film won four awards at the Venice Film Festival, including Special Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize. It has also just won four French Césars: best French film, best director, best original screenplay and most promising actress (for Hafsia Herzi, who had no prior acting experience).

The Secret of the Grain screens again at the Como on Friday 14 March, 8.45pm, Balwyn on Sunday 16 March at 3.45pm and Westgarth on Tuesday 18 March at 8.45pm. It has a cinema release on 20 March.

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