Blu-ray Review: The Secret of the Grain (Criterion Collection)

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of a Grain is a lesson in “how to” and “how to not” make a great movie. For two hours of its 154-minute running time it introduces the audience to new faces and builds tension out of merely existing and allowing the camera to tell the story. However, in the final 30 minutes of this familial drama you begin to feel the influence of a script where one didn’t seem to exist before. What was once real now feels fake. It feels like a set-up.

Kechiche asks his audience to bare with him for 90 minutes as he builds his story and frames his characters. The next 30 minutes are about as tense as any film could possibly be and the fact this tension derives from the question of whether or not the couscous will arrive in time for the opening night of Slimane Beiji’s (Habib Boufares) restaurant on the water is unfathomable. Yet, that tension exists. It made me thankful for investing in the film and I was honestly holding on to every minute, waiting for the next. As time ticked away I would check the display to see how much of the film was left, wondering how it would all play out… Then The Secret of the Grain let me down.

As anyone that watches handfuls of films each week, I am prone to look for each turn in the story before it happens. As in life we weigh scenarios in our mind to guess what can come of any one situation as determined by the facts on hand. With The Secret of the Grain Kechiche could have gone one of two ways. He chose poorly as this film devolves into one melodramatic beat after another and once the cards start falling the entire house isn’t too far behind. I felt cheated, and not in a good way.

I think some people would look at my impression of this film and insinuate I was upset due to the open ending. That’s not at all the case. My disappointment is certainly with the ending, but it has nothing to do with the way the story ends, but the way Kechiche arrived at that ending. Melodramatic turns in a realist story are worthless. They cheapen the overall story turning it into big studio fodder rather than a film worthy of the time and effort put into it. Truthfully, this is a beautifully executed film, and when I say it serves as a lesson in “how to” and “how to not” make films I mean it.

The “how to not” is referring to the trash ending, the “how to” comes from Kechiche’s use of both professional and non-professional actors. It comes from his close-ups and handheld camera work and the intimacy he gains from this technique in each scene. But more importantly it comes from scenes that run too long and then run a little longer. We’ve all seen films in which the scenes sometimes run too long, adding nothing to the story and getting us nowhere we weren’t minutes before. The same can’t be said for the way Kechiche lets his scenes develop. And that’s exactly what they are doing — developing.

A scene that runs too long can also be a scene that was cut short before the characters found what they were looking for. Kechiche allows this to happen and while it is off-putting at first you begin to desire it later in the film. Character building does not always have to be about what is said, it can also be about what is experienced. With The Secret of the Grain you experience the characters. You get to know them as if you have spent years with them boiled down to only a few minutes. It’s this fact that makes the cop out of an ending all the more frustrating.

Criterion’s treatment of this film is both frustrating and enlightening. Outside of a core group of interview pieces and an extended edit of the film’s climactic belly dance sequence as interpreted on the cover art, the most intriguing supplements are the interview with film scholar Ludovic Cortade and the included essay by Wesley Morris. I don’t particularly find any grounds of agreement with either of these gentleman as Cortade seeks to dissect this film from every angle and Morris is keen to point out its realist aspects while dismissing its wholly unrealistic finale. Yet, both open up several talking points that can fascinate and frustrate, which is basically the whole point of film criticism in the first place. Job well done.

In terms of recommending this title all I can say is it was quite nearly a film that floored me, but in the end was a film I wanted to toss out the window. Sometimes these can be films that stay with us forever, in this example I don’t see that happening as the final 30 minutes are so infuriating I’m not sure I could withstand them again. Fans of this film will be happy with the transfer and the included supplements, but as it is I can’t give my full endorsement.

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