The Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche, whose latest film, The Secret of the Grain, screens as the closing night of this year’s City of Lights, City of Angels French film festival, makes movies about the North African émigré communities located in the suburbs (or banlieue) on the outskirts of Paris. Like their American equivalents, these are the neighborhoods most often depicted — in movies and on the evening news — whenever racial unrest sets them momentarily ablaze, or when there is a “remarkable” story about one of their residents pulling him-/herself up by the bootstraps and leaving the ghetto behind for a “better” life. But Kechiche operates in an altogether different mode, putting the everyday life of the banlieue and its people — his people — onscreen with a poetic realism that transcends headline-grabbing notoriety. In doing so, he gives an authentic cinematic voice to the previously voiceless, or at least the chronically stereotyped.
Kechiche is that rare thing at the movies these days: an intelligent humanist. In his 2003 feature L’Esquive, which stunned almost everyone by winning Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at the César Awards (France’s equivalent of the Oscars), a group of mostly Arab high schoolers from a low-income housing project stage a production of Pierre de Marivaux’s class-conscious comedy The Game of Love and Chance — only to find, in that 18th-century text, a series of parallels to their own social situation. It was a remarkably original film about the universal power of art, cast with mostly nonprofessional actors and filmed in long, semi-improvised scenes of an often dazzling intensity. But unlike what a Hollywood version of the same story might do, L’Esquive didn’t act surprised that these public-housing youths were actually literate, thoughtful and intelligent (as well as sometimes petty, jealous, flawed) human beings, nor did it feel the need to provide a white interlocutor to ease non-Arab audiences into these “unfamiliar” surroundings.
Much the same can be said about The Secret of the Grain, in which a 61-year-old shipyard worker in the port city of Sète is laid off after four decades of service and sets about opening a couscous restaurant aboard the decrepit boat he buys with his severance pay. For Slimane, played with quiet, solitary force by screen newcomer Habib Boufares, the restaurant is both a folie de grandeur and a final testament — a way, he hopes, to bring together the disparate members of his family (including his ex-wife, his three grown children, his current mistress and her daughter) and restore his own bruised dignity. Yet the more Slimane devotes himself to the project, the further it seems to drift out of reach.
I’m almost afraid to say how highly I think of The Secret of the Grain (which recently repeated L’Esquive’s César triumph and, as this article was going to press, was acquired for U.S. distribution by IFC Films), for there is something so fragile about what Kechiche does that it risks crumbling under the weight of inflated expectations. Like Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (whose sensibilities he recalls), Kechiche favors casual observation over dramatic obviousness — a lively family dinner scene may go on for close to 20 minutes before we fully realize who all the characters are and how they relate to one another. Never once do we feel the hand of the filmmaker forcing us from here to there, telling us how to think or what to feel. Then, gradually, a story of considerable narrative complexity emerges, and by the time The Secret of the Grain reaches its final act, our pulses are racing and our hearts are in our throats.
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There isn’t a secret per se in The Secret of the Grain (which is better served by its French title, Le Graine et le Mulet), but there are several in Claude Miller’s A Secret, based on Philippe Grimbert’s semiautobiographical novel about 40 years in the lives of a French Jewish family. The commanding Patrick Bruel is superb as Maxime, a champion gymnast who disparages his heritage and, to an extent, his own young son (Valentin Vigourt), whose sickly pallor and birdlike physique suggest to him the most loathsome stereotypes of Jewish inferiority. The time is 1955, but the shadow of the Holocaust still looms large for Maxime and his glamorous fashion-model wife (Cécile de France, also excellent), and as Miller elegantly scuttles back and forth between past and present, the film becomes a fascinating contemplation of Semitic identity, self-denial and self-preservation.
For those who haven’t had their fill of illicit intrigue by this point, COLCOA also offers the world premiere of a newly restored print of Fritz Lang’s 1948 noir shocker Secret Beyond the Door, in which Joan Bennett’s vacationing heiress falls for and unwisely marries Michael Redgrave’s modern-day Bluebeard. The film itself isn’t French, but the restoration is.
Finally, from secrets to secret agents, there’s director and co-writer Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, an uproarious send-up of Jean Bruce’s long-running series of spy novels — a Gallic precursor to James Bond — and the seven straight-faced feature films they inspired between 1956 and 1970. Here, tongues are planted firmly in cheeks as comedian Jean Dujardin steps into the shoes of the preening, chauvinistic Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (a.k.a. OSS 117), who finds himself dispatched to Egypt with a simple mission: “Make the Middle East safe.” (He soon shows his cultural sensitivity by making politically incorrect comments about the Suez Canal and telling an early-morning muezzin to shut up.) Closer in spirit to the deadpan stylings of early Zucker brothers than the more obvious slap-shtick of the Austin Powers franchise, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies makes joyous nonsense out of bad matte paintings, obvious miniatures, unsubtle sexual innuendo and a lead actor who plays the role to clueless, arched-eyebrow perfection. And whatever you do, don’t forget the secret code words: “How is your veal stew?”
CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS | Directors Guild of America | Through Sun., April 20 | www.colcoa.com