Secret of the Grain (2007)
|Year Of Production||2007|
|RSDL / Flipper||Dual Layered||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||4||Directed By||Abdel Kechiche|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||French Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)|
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.85:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.85:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
One of the most lauded foreign films of 2008 was Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et la Mulet). The winner of a swag of awards at the French equivalent of the Oscars, the Cesars, as well as the winner of the Fipresci Prize and Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, The Secret of the Grain made it way into the Top 10 list of many noted critics. It was released on DVD in 2008 and now forms part of the New French Cinema: Drama box set.
The film is at once highly detailed and yet sprawling and almost plotless. It focuses on the lives of a Tunisian/French dock worker in the Mediterranean Port of Sete. Like the films of Fatih Akin (who frequently examines the Turkish experience in Germany) director Kechiche looks at this large Arab community as both the majority in the small dockside community and the minority in France.
The Secret of the Grain has very little in the way of a plot. Ageing dock worker Slimane (Habib Boufares) is at the end of his career on the water front. Not only is he 61 years old and moving slower than he used to but the docks themselves are cutting back and the word on the water is that Slimane will soon be made redundant.
Slimane is divorced from the mother of his five children. The relationship between the estranged couple is courtly and the children have oceans of respect for this dour, downcast man. His three daughters are all forces of natures ably controlling the men in their lives whilst still managing to make them feel like they rule the roost.
The extended family, without Slimane, live in a dilapidated apartment complex. Slimane lives with his lover Latifa in her run down hotel. Perhaps even more than his own children the apple of Slimane's eye is Latifa's daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi) a feisty direct teenager. When retrenchment finally comes it is Rym who prods and assists Slimane to achieve his life aim - to open a restaurant. He buys a wrecked boat and converts it into a restaurant.
Getting all the money approvals and licences proves to be a major stumbling block for the pair. To woo investors and to soften up the government authorities Slimane opens the restaurant boat up for a gala evening - North African food abounds but the centrepiece is to be his ex-wife's couscous with fish. A series of tangles and complicationsappear before Slimane which risk pushing his bold vision off the rails.
As well as directing the film Kechiche wrote the screenplay. However the entire film seems improvised from basic ideas. Kechiche uses newcomers and amateurs in his cast which bears mixed fruit. Young actress Hafsia Herzi is a definite find and her scenes bristle with her youthful enthusiasm and passion. Kechiche is more interested in the internal drama of the family rather than the external events hence the centrepiece of the film is a pair of long slow lunches where the family gather, without Slimane, and discuss issues of domestic interest. This scene beguiles with its earthiness.
Opening the scenes up and letting them breathe is a definite part of the charm of the film. However, at times, it also becomes a curse. At 2½ hours the film is about half an hour too long and there are several scenes where the actors raise the same issue time and again. Foremost amongst these is a late scene where the Russian wife of Majid, Slimane adulterous eldest son, rants on his infidelity and the apparent nonchalance's with which this is treated by the family. The scene is important for several reasons including the clear message that the sons and daughters close ranks around their own, which is reflected in their non-acceptance of Latifa and Rym, but the director allows the rant to go on for what seems like 10 minutes.
Even Herzi is allowed to run on too long when trying to convince her mother to attend the gala night on the boat. No doubt Kechiche wanted to let the scenes breath to allow us to experience a real family with their mundane issues however the pacing is sometimes too slow. This is to be contrasted with the last 40 minutes of the film where the director turns the tension up to 11, making for sweaty palms.
In short, The Secret of the Grain is an invitation to join this extended family and observe their rituals of their day to day lives. Once accepted the invitation pays off with a depth of human experience and understanding. Those seeking a snappy dialogue driven film would do well to stay clear. The dialogue is rarely sparkling and Slimane is an almost silent lead surrounded by motor-mouth family members. Indeed, for the first 40 minutes there is no plot advancement whatsoever. However, for those who wish to be drawn into this earthy world with its ageing fishing boats, mountains of couscous and passionate people, the film will undoubtedly have a strong resonance and be a firm favourite.
According to IMDB The Secret of the Grain was projected cinematically at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This ratio has been preserved for the DVD release. It is 16x9 enhanced. The Secret of the Grain is a long film however the lack of any real extras on the DVD means that the film is allowed to span both layers of this DVD 9. Accordingly, I did not notice any real compression issues and the high definition digital image quality was generally bright and clear with no low level noise.
The flesh tones were accurate and the colours - from the deep blue of the sea, to the yellow of the couscous and the deep red of a belly dancing costume - are all accurately rendered without any bleeding.
The quality of the flesh tones is crucial to this film as Kechiche has his cinematographer shoot much of the film up close and personal.
The subtitles are clear and easy to read.
The sound for The Secret of the Grain is Dolby Digital 2.0 running at 224Kb/s.
This is perfectly adequate for this film as much of it consists of dialogues or multi logs around the kitchen table. The dialogue is always clear and easy to hear. It appears to be in perfect audio sync.
Kechiche presents his film as akin to a documentary of the lives of this family. Accordingly, there is no music other than that heard by the characters. The music, as might be expected, is Tunisian with its beguiling insistent rhythms. In the gala night scenes a group of musicians play traditional music to great effect.
There are no technical problems with the sound transfer.
|Surround Channel Use|
NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.
Aside from this Region 4 release it appears The Secret of the Grain has been released on DVD in Region 2 France and Region 2 UK. The Region 2 release in the UK contains an interview with the director of approximately 24 minutes in length.
It is worth noting that in the UK the film was retitled "Couscous". The Secret of the Grain is, of course, not a literal translation of La Graine et la Mulet. My research suggests that the film title directly translates as the grain and a mule (with the pun on mullet for the fish). Apparently the title stems from an allegorical story about a farmer who, to save money, deprives his mule of one less grain per day. There are no apparent disadvantages until the mule drops dead!
Those who are very keen on the film may wish to purchase the Region 2 UK version however I would suspect that the Region 4 edition will be satisfactory for most.
The Secret of the Grain is a long drama which combines not just the kitchen sink but the pots on top of it. The French were in awe of the film as were some top US critics including A.O. Scott of the New York Times who put it high in his best 10 films of the year list. There is no doubt it has a strong resonance for those who are able to slip into its rhythms.
The transfer quality is quite good both in sound and vision terms. The lack of extras is a disappointment however many would no doubt prefer to have more space devoted to the transfer of the film than to extras.
|DVD||Pioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output|
|Display||Pioneer PDP-5000EX. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Speakers||JBL 5.1 Surround and Subwoofer|