You could play a drinking game with Abdellatif Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain" (2007). Drink up a shot every time someone mentions Couscous! It isn't for nothing though, because at the very heart of Kechiche's film is this signature Tunisian delicacy, the one weapon with which its protagonist hopes to turn his world around.
A veteran shipping yard worker, Slimane (Habib Boufares) finds himself in a desperate career crisis at the age of 61, as modernization and outsourcing threaten to deprive him of his bread and butter. Hope knocks in the form of his big fat family of French Arab immigrants, some old friends, well-wishers and most importantly, the great taste of his ex-wife's home-made Couscous! While bringing down an old abandoned ship, Slimane experiences a straight-faced eureka moment; that of converting the ship into a restaurant that specializes in Couscous.
But the task is not an easy one, as Slimane, assisted by his lover/landlady's comely young daughter, Rym, comes to realize. Convincing the powers that be to authorize and finance him in his dream project proves to be a gargantuan challenge. After much effort, blood, sweat and tears, a grand party is arranged to do the convincing, perhaps with a little taste of the ol' Couscous! Will his dream set sail and stay afloat in a sea full of bureaucratic sharks who threaten to sink his ship of hope? Will Slimane be able to pull it off or will the ain (curse) hinder his aspirations?
Kechiche's film unfolds in three acts. The first chronicles the beginning of his woes as he loses his job and learns that there may not be anymore work. This segment also introduces us to his extended family with his ex-wife, and his new family with a younger love interest. Various subplots, some central to the events that follow make way into the story, including Slimane's son Majid's torrid affairs. A particular expose that projects a connection between Majid's philandering nature and the pivotal climactic episode is very subtly inserted in a scene that one might blink and miss.
The second deals with his business brainwave and his attempts to get things moving with his adopted daughter Rym as his aide. It is an interesting choice by the filmmaker to completely omit the details leading to this juncture in the story, including any explicit act of convincing his family to join in into his ambitious venture. In lieu of the drama that could possibly have accompanied this whole scenario, Kechiche spends a lot more time on an extended Sunday meal sequence, quite naturally shot, with glib conversations and intimate close-ups, sometimes uncomfortable to the extent of even showing food contents in the characters' mouths! The details of how he got his ex-wife to help him in his cause is instead explained as part of a conversation of some gossiping old fogies, claiming to be friends of Slimane.
And the final act, which is also the most important one showcases his last-ditch effort in making things works, by giving everyone a taste of his labour of love. This entire sequence provides most of the dramatic edge to the story, with a lot of suspenseful and tense moments that showcase Kechiche's directorial prowess. There is some delicious icing on the cake, an exotic, sensuous belly dance presented as a surprise act by the gorgeous Rym. This is a very relevant scene and not superfluous as is often the case.
Kechiche constructs his tale beautifully, with a lot of focus on dialog and intimate character interactions. There are a myriad interesting characters, all of them quite likable despite their flaws. The conversation scenes are especially noteworthy in the manner in which they have been shot. They have an organic, casual vibe, almost like a documentary and the actors seem to forget that there is a camera rolling, capturing it all.
At the center of it all is our brooding, aging hero, Slimane, whose perpetually long face speaks a million words. It is a remarkable performance by Habib Boufares, whose social awkwardness is more than convincing, well supported by Hafsia Herzi, as Rym who tries to use her youthful charm to be the face of the venture by doing all the talking with the authorities.
Special mention must be reserved for Alice Houri as Julia, Majid's wife who chews the entire scene in which she breathlessly rants about her husband's addiction to affairs. It is a strikingly natural act and for a while we forget that it is an act.
A sharp contrast in the immigrant Arabs and the snooty, authoritative French bureaucrats is quite tangible in Kechiche's characterization. This divide creates direct stereotypes in some of the characters and intentionally so, for they serve to prove a point or two towards the culmination, including the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and an innate racial trait of wanting to crush the lowly, their merit notwithstanding.
In the end, regardless of the outcome (and we can only hope for the best) of ol' Slimane's endeavours, it is heartening to see all these colourful characters, especially his two families, come together despite their mutual disdain for each other, to lift his spirits up and walk with him to achieve his goal.