Monday, October 27, 2008

No secret, just a great film

The Secret of the Grain has its final screening tomorrow (10/28), 8:30pm, at 600 N. Michigan.

Once in a while that rare French filmmaker comes along who is liked – hell, fawned over – by his public, the local industry that produces and releases his films, and the magazine that usually acts as contrarian to the tastes of all, Les Cahiers du cinema. If you are at least familiar with the Cahiers, you know that Abdel Kechiche has achieved some sort of miracle with his last two films, L’esquive (2004) and The Secret of the Grain (2007).

If you want to know why he is the darling of the French film world, look no further than the films themselves. You will find no explanation in the backstage of festivals and awards ceremonies (though Kechiche has already swept the prestigious French Césars twice). Kechiche has no previous industry standing. In public terms, he has proved to be a shy figure and has avoided festival appearances (you won’t see him in Chicago, alas).

It may be the subject matter – the perils facing France’s vibrant immigrant communities – that attracts spectators since even the most recent work by Jacques Rivette, virtually ignored in its native land, has seen a wider release in the U.S. than the last two Kechiche films. L’esquive, Kechiche’s second feature, was released in the States more than two years after its international premiere, and when it finally got to Chicago it only ran for a week at the Film Center. The Secret of the Grain didn’t come to town after its Venice premiere in 2007, though to the credit of CIFF’s programmers, the usual ruling out of year-old work was put aside in this case.

If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and blowout the festival with The Secret of the Grain, a film about a North African man named Slimane who is laid-off from the docks of Sète and has the idea to open a restaurant featuring his ex-wife’s couscous. About an hour and a half is just the build-up; the rest, which falls in place with such nail-biting precision, you will just have to see for yourself.

Like L’esquive, Secret is a film in which words are an essential element. Kechiche allows his characters to engage each other in epic verbal outbursts that go on sometimes for ten minutes (in fact, one scene late in Secret is so endless in this respect that audience members generally flock out in droves). Patient viewers will be rewarded for sitting through such obstinate wordiness when they discover that the film comes to be entirely about the body: the body, not words, are literally the element that may save Slimane, his family, and his friends, from total catastrophe.