Dir/Scr: Abdellatif Kechiche , France , 2007, 153mins.
A cine-verite tour-de-force, Abdellatif Kechiche's follow-up to the award- winning L'Esquive loads an apparently slight story set against the background of France 's first-and-second generation Maghrebi immigrant communities with surprising dramatic weight.
There's even less story and even more of the director's trademark keep-the-cameras-rolling improv technique in The Secret of the Grain than there was in the remarkable L'Esquive, and if the new film has a fault, its precisely this: that on his third outing, encouraged perhaps by all those Cesars, Kechiche is a tad self-indulgent in the way he lets scenes run on beyond the point when they've released all their dramatic potential.
Already cut down for its Venice debut - apparently at the insistence of festival supremo Marco Muller - the film could benefit from further trimming, especially in the powerful but also interminable final scene.
The film's mostly upbeat Venice reception should be mirrored by peppy urban box-office, particularly in France, where the director's audience crosses over from the arthouse to the banlieus. But The Secret of the Grain may turn out to have a shorter run and less resilient DVD afterlife than L'Esquive, which built slowly in the year after its release on the back of awards and word of mouth.
Like the earlier films of Robert Guediguian, The Secret of the Grain exposes a side of the South of France not normally covered in the tourist brochures and guidebooks. In the depressed industrial port of Sete, 61-year-old Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is left demoralised and disoriented when the shipyard he's served for 35 years lays him off.
A tired, drawn man of few words, Slimane is unable to take much solace from the family he left behind with his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk), who he still visits regularly, or from his new on-off partner Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) - the owner of the waterfront hotel where Slimane has taken a room, and which acts as a refuge for an assortment of mostly elderly, male Maghrebi waifs and strays.
The only person who really seems to care much about Slimane is Latifa's feisty, buxom, no-nonsense daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). When Slimane reveals his secret ambition - to turn a rusting hulk of a ship into a dockside couscous restaurant, it's Rym who accompanies the taciturn, intorverted older man from bank to town hall to try to secure the loans and permits he needs. Caught in a Catch-22 web of needing money to get permissions and vice-versa, Slimane decides to invite friends, potential investors and city burghers to a one-off party on the restored ship, confident that the excellence of his couscous (cooked by his ex-wife) and the warmth of the ambience will swing the odds in his favour.
But as with L'Esquive, it's not the story that counts so much as the way it's narrated. Kechiche is a channeler of energies. He finds these energies in unremarkable, everyday situations - like the two meals (the first is a family dinner in Souad's apartment) that together account for around half of the film's running time. And he finds them in non-professional actors - like the remarkable Hafisa Herzi, who is the revelation of this film in the same way that Sara Forestier (who picked up the best Newcomer award at the 2005 Cesars) was the revelation of L'Esquive.
Camerawork is handheld but not messy, accompanying the rhythm of the passionate conversations and rows that score the film like an emotional soundtrack (the only, actual music is on-screen, provided by the Tunisian musicians who play at the final party on the boat).
Intuitive in his direction of actors and ability to capture evolving moments of emotional truth, Kechiche just needs to learn to be a little more cold and rational in the editing suite. If he had brought it in at less than two hours, The Secret of the Grain would have been well-nigh perfect.
France 2 Cinema