There’s no “secret” — of cooking, of love, of financial success — in Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain,” though there is indeed plenty of grain. Though it’s also played under the simpler name of “Couscous,” the film is actually called “The Grain and the Mullet” in French — the latter half of the title denoting the fish and not the novelty haircut. Maybe none of these quite captures the film, which in its length and dozen-or-so characters is itself difficult to succinctly summarize, but the original title does at least point to fish and couscous, the celebrated signature dish of the now fractured Beiji family. Each Sunday, Souab, the family matriarch, still serves up her legendary couscous for her children and grandchildren, even as, by the docks across town, her divorced husband Slimane awaits a delivery of leftovers in the Hotel d’Orient where he now lives.
Indeed, if there ever were any secrets amongst the Beijis, a large and eclectic Franco-Arabic family living in the port city of Sete in the south of France, they were exposed long ago. The siblings’ financial difficulties and harmful infidelities are known to all the members of the family, even if they’re not subjects of discussion at Sunday lunch. And though he’s partly estranged and out of sight, Slimane seems nothing if not resigned to his many apparent troubles.
Long past his prime and recently laid off from his job in the ship repair business, he often pays his alimony in the form of the mullet he gets from local fisherman buddies. He has little to offer his biological children, some of whom suggest he simply shove off to the old country, and little to offer his new family, the Hotel d’Orient’s owner Latifa and her game and sympathetic daughter, Rym. So, as a last ditch effort, the otherwise reticent Slimane hatches a scheme to open a floating couscous restaurant, with Souab’s couscous as the perpetual plat du jour, and Rym rallies support from all sides of the old man’s life.
This heady stew of foreign cuisine, family squabbles, and international cinema is a potent, if familiar one, and while most films play this combination for universalist, heart-warming chuckles, “The Secret of the Grain” is as po-faced as its wizened and weary protagonists. Just as family and friends rally to aid Slimane in his quixotic endeavor, their problems and in-fighting bubble to the surface. Even if secrets are few, the mysterious convolutions of brutal circumstance abound, serving to push events along or else screw them up entirely.
The result is 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. With this awkward structure, the film might well strike one as uneven or even chaotic: long sequences play out without discernible direction and then end abruptly, while seemingly significant plot points are elided entirely, only to be brought to our attention in offhand ways later on. It’s an odd strategy, but it seems to have a point — or rather a blunt, purposeful end that forces a reconsideration of Slimane and his place in French society, his family, and the world.
But while this end would seem to justify its means, the film is not exactly engaging or particularly fun to watch. The first part asks us to situate ourselves, and the last part almost makes us want to run screaming from the theater. But while discomfort in itself, if carefully deployed, is not reason enough to dislike a film, “The Secret of the Grain”‘s coercive allegory and occasionally heavy-handed characterizations (especially of non-Arabic characters) are. 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.