Friday, March 13, 2009

The Secret of the Grain

There's a difference between "art-house" and "boutique" films. One of the people in the group I went with on Tuesday made a comment about knowing I would likely not be into this because of how little I liked A Christmas Tale, and this was another long French film. The thing is, I'm good with "boutique". I've got no problem with "long" or "French", individually or paired. I've got a problem with boring. I like to see people doing things, or at least saying interesting things. "Art-house", I guess, is beyond the need for such conventional narrative. And it drives me bonkers.

La Graine et le Mulet (The Secret of the Grain)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

The Secret of the Grain is filled with things that make for great movies and great drama - opening a new restaurant, conflict between new and old families after divorce, being an ethnic minority, adultery, and cooking delicious food. Writer/director Abdel Kechiche, however, chooses approach these things obliquely, and to draw out what he does show in the most patience-trying way possible.

We follow Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a long-time dockworker in a port city in the south of France, and fidgety moviegoers should take it as an omen that we're introduced to him by way of his boss upbraiding him for taking three days to do a two-day job. His hours are cut and he leaves the yard, making stops to visit and deliver fresh fish to his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) and his daughter Karima (Farida Benkhetache), before coming home to girlfriend Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). Laid off, he decides to open a floating seafood restaurant featuring Souad's fish couscous, though the help of Rym and his family only takes him so far when trying to navigate the bureaucracy and woo investors.

Kechiche makes what are, if we choose to be kind, unconventional choices as to what to show and what not to show during the first hour-plus. For instance, we see Slimane and his boss discussing the severance package that he had been resisting, but the scene ends with him being told his hours are reduced; his actual losing of his job happens off-screen. We don't get a scene of him purchasing the boat, or deciding to open a restaurant. We don't get Slimane broaching the idea of the restaurant with Souad, or any confrontation between Slimane and Latifa over this idea. Much of this is supplied to us after the fact, by a chorus of Arab magicians sitting outside Latifa's restaurant. That's typical of what is shown through much of the movie, circular conversations that practically wear a rut in the ground by coming back to the same point over and over again. There's an extended Sunday dinner at Souad's which almost does this well, but like nearly every other scene in the movie, it goes on too long and repeats itself too often.

Someone less story-oriented than I might think that Kechiche keeps most of the obvious plot-advancing events off-screen for aesthetic reasons, that they can be inferred and watching the characters react to them is a purer experience. It's possible. After a while, though, another theory started to come to mind: what if Kechiche discovered and built the movie around Habib Boufares only to find he couldn't act? That he has no other credits on IMDB isn't strong evidence for this theory (the further you get from Hollywood, the less complete it gets, and the ethnically North African/Arabic cast of an independent French film is a fair distance away), but it would explain the fact that, while Slimane is the film's central character, we never see him have a pivitol role in a scene. Boufares looks perfect for the role - every individual line on his face and hitch in his gait is as it should be - but the film certainly seems to be working around him.

As theories go, it's probably crazy and almost certainly unkind, but it's where my mind went during two and a half hours of doing things off-screen and numbing repetition within scenes. It is, quite frankly, astonishing what a talent Kechiche has for wearing out a scene's welcome, especially in the last act. For just the second time, something has happened on-screen which holds out the possibility of causing other things to happen, but, of course, what the characters wind up doing is stalling in one location, and going through a series of incredibly drawn-out scenes in others. One is particularly painful, because it's a woman crying her heart out, but it goes on for so damn long that I went from feeling bad for her to feeling bad about wanting her to shut up. And it's just one of three prolonged time-killers Kechiche cuts between!

The worst part is that for all the time burned, there are moments where The Secret of the Grain is cutting and potentially fascinating. Hafsia Herzi, for instance, never strikes a dull note when she's on-screen; she plays Rym as intelligent, passionate, and fiercely loyal to the man who is like a father to her. There's the flagrant way that the other local business owners make plans to sabotage Slimane while guests at his grand opening, and the way family differences explode into anger, especially among the women (Rym, her mother, and Slimane's daughters practically arch their backs like angry cats when confronted with each other). Even the scene with the crying woman starts out wonderfully raw before it pounds the audience into numbness.

Indeed, it's tempting to give the film higher marks based upon the good moments, or even recommend it to those who prize unfiltered realism, right down to the monotony. I can't do it though, at least not now - the memory of banging the back of my head against the seat, desperate for the movie to end, or just get to the next scene, and seriously considering whether or not I would have walked out had I not been with a group is still too fresh.

Also at EFC.

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