The grain is couscous and the recipe is the secret in Abdellatif Kechiche's warm and expansive family drama, set in a community of first- and second-generation Maghrebi immigrants in a depressed port town in the south of France. Allowing his story to unfold at a leisurely pace, Tunisian-born Kechiche (Games of Love and Chance) envelops the audience in the internecine squabbles of an extended family for whom food provides more than sustenance. When 61-year-old Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is laid off after 35 years at the shipyard, he decides to use his severance pay to buy a rundown boat that will house a restaurant to serve his ex-wife's beloved fish couscous. By his side in this venture is his current girlfriend's daughter, Rym (Hafsia Herzi), who helps him navigate the government bureaucracy and subtle prejudices that stand in his way, and on opening night his children and boardinghouse compatriots rally to his aid. Played out primarily with nonprofessional actors who have been encouraged to improvise, Kechiche's film reminds us of earlier landmark films from the south of France, including Jean Renoir's 1934 film Toni, that often overlooked precursor of Italian neorealism; and the expressively voluble characters of Marcel Pagnol's Fanny trilogy, whose lives were similarly centered on the family table and the café. Cinematographer Lubomir Bakchev's camera darts vérité-style from one face to another to keep up with the chatter, while Boufares' quiet performance balances those of the volatile women around him. Now that Kechiche has won France's top César honors for two films in a row, we may be forgiven for dreaming that he perhaps represents a future path for a French cinema-at once naturalistic, multiculural, and shorn of pretense.
Abdellatif Kechiche (b. Tunis, Tunisia) has achieved the remarkable feat of being awarded three of France's top films prizes-the Césars for best film, best director, and best original screenplay-twice in four years. In 2008, he won for The Secret of the Grain, and in 2005 for Games of Love and Chance. Secret also won the Prix Louis Delluc. His debut film, Blame It on Voltaire, was named best debut film at the Venice Film Festival. Kechiche has also worked as an actor, appearing opposite Robin Wright Penn in Sorry, Haters (2005) and in Business (1992), a Tunisian film by Nouri Bouzid, whose Making Of won two of the top prizes at Tribeca last year.