December 24, 2008
The Secret of the Grain."French cinema is alive and well in 2008 (Ryan Werner, rejoice!)," writes Michael Tully at Hammer to Nail, "as evidenced by several high profile releases that have made their way into American theaters: Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, Laurent Cantet's The Class, Guillaume Canet's Tell No One and Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long. For my money, the year's best French offering isn't one of those titles. It's Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain. At two-and-a-half hours, The Secret of the Grain unfolds with a Cassavetes-like disregard for conventional cinematic time; here, scenes are extended beyond their normal length to create a more lived-in and realistic air. Kechiche's gritty fable isn't just a refreshing antidote to the much more common, artificially optimistic cinema that treads similar narrative terrain. It is also a poignant family drama convincingly set inside France's ever-changing cultural borders, as well as a profound universal commentary on the curse of being poor and uneducated in this, or any other, era." Updated through 12/27. "Mr Kechiche started out as an actor and has established himself, after directing three features (La Faute à Voltaire and L'Esquive before this one), as one of the most vital and interesting filmmakers working in France today," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "In The Secret of the Grain he immerses us in the hectic, tender, sometimes painful details of work and domesticity. The camera bobs and fidgets in crowded rooms full of noisy people, so that your senses are flooded with the warmth and stickiness of Slimane [Habib Boufares] and Souad's [Bouraouïa Marzouk] family circle. The scenes, though they feel improvised, at times almost accidentally recorded, have a syncopated authenticity for which the sturdy old word realism seems inadequate." "It's not a perfect film, but perfection requires an organization that would instantly betray the racially-crowded French-Tunisian lineage, along with its past, present, and future matriarchs," writes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant. "The film is a rarity becoming increasing more common: a surreptitious creation myth crafted to inspire pride in even the most diverse and elusive of ethnic identities." "There's no question that Kechiche's film was massively popular in France (where it swept most major categories in the Césars, or French Oscars, last year) partly because it depicts the Arab immigrant experience in a country currently wrestling with the meaning and cost of multiculturalism," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "But an even better reason for the popularity of Secret of the Grain is that it's a movie that's so damn French, about people who've become so damn French, couscous and all." "There's an inordinate amount of table-setting, but everything comes together in the end - French attitude, family melodrama, heavy drinking, mad Maghreb rhythm," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "The Secret of the Grain escalates into visceral allegory with an abandon and cruelty that seem positively Romanian." Writing in indieWIRE, Leo Goldsmith finds Secret to be "a curiously lopsided film that begins as an unassumingly naturalistic drama, then suddenly waylays the spectator with a third act that is, in succession, hair-raising, annoying, preposterous, and finally enervating.... Kechiche earns a lot of good will in the first part of the film, building a lot of sympathy for Slimane and his family, but his slow implication of the audience in the outrageous fortunes of the final act works against the first half's carefully measured humanity." "[T]he movie's loose structure - a 20-minute time-out for a massive dinner isn't considered tangential - turns this ensemble piece into something more than a savory family drama," writes David Fear in Time Out New York. "Whether or not the restaurant opens is beside the point; it's Kechiche's living, breathing portrait of a second-generation immigrant culture that's The Secret of the Grain's real success story." "Grain recalls Ramin Bahrani's New York miniatures, but while elliptical Bahrani fills in the margins, Kechiche magnifies them," writes Mark Asch in the L Magazine. "In 150 minutes, Grain doesn't pack more scenes than a shorter movie, just longer ones: going face-to-face with voluble characters, Kechiche stokes family tension, then simmers it down. You've never seen such a suspenseful meeting with a loan officer; Grain's a naturalist epic from the land of Zola." Earlier: Reviews from Venice in 2007 and from the UK this June. Update, 12/25: "The Secret of the Grain is more complicated than it sounds, less geared toward uplift than in revealing the fault-lines within this sprawling, multi-generational family and between their immigrant culture and their French hosts," writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. Update, 12/27: Steve Erlanger meets Kechiche for the NYT: "He did not want to do 'a movie on some community,' he said. 'It's what's universal in this family that interested me,' he added. 'What I really wanted to describe was a social milieu and a family we can find in all the families of the world: all the secrets, the affections, the heart-wrenchings, the treachery are things we find in every family.'"
Posted by dwhudson at December 24, 2008 3:36 AM