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La Graine et le Mulet: The Secret of the Grain

Abdellatif Kechiche’s film La Graine et le Mulet recently won Best Film in the prestigious Cesar awards, comparable to an Oscar award in the U.S.
Hafsia Herzi also won a Cesar as best new emerging talent for her portrayal of Rym, the vivacious adopted daughter of Slimane Beiji (played by Habib Boufares). Beiji represents the patriarch of an Arab immigrant family settled in Sete – a fishing town in southern France.
First, a word about the film’s title: La Graine et le Mulet
The English translation isn’t really quite right: The Secret of the Grain. It should be: The Grain and the Mullet
The grain is referring to a key ingredient in the North African dish ‘cous cous’, or the semolina.
Cous-cous plays a major role in La Graine et le Mulet. The dream of opening up a cous-cous restaurant on a restored boat destined for the scrap heap drives the entire plot of La Graine.
Here is when your understanding ( or lack of understanding of French) can really throw some monkey wrenches into your expectations of where the story might go.
Mulet – in this case refers to the fish (mullet). Director Kechiche explains that he chose the idea of the mulet as a symbol – a type of fish that can adapt to difficult environments – a stubborn fish. It is also the other principal ingredient in this delicious cous-cous prepared from the most plentiful and inexpensive product available in this seaside town. (Other cous-cous dishes are made with chicken or lamb).
Mulet can also mean mule in French. But, I confused ‘mulet’ with ‘mulot’ which is a field rat.
Therefore, throughout the film I was convinced that a rat was going to turn up in the restaurant and destroy the entire family’s efforts to create a successful opening night. Actually, a snag does occur, setting off an entire chain of events (beginning with a betrayal right in the first scene of the film) but I’ll save the details for those that decide to see the film.
Although Hafsia Herzi has been heaped with praise for her role (plus a Cesar award) (and well-deserved), this is a case where every actor and actress in the film deserves great praise – Rim’s step sisters give equally moving performances. Considering that a number of the cast were entirely new to acting, this film is definitely worth viewing for that reason alone.
Herzi’s belly dancing finale has been given much attention, but really the most sensuous scene is her way of eating a plate of cous-cous. (Knowing that in reality, Herzi actually doesn’t care much for cous-cous makes you understand why she won a Cesar, and that she admitted that she didn’t know how to belly dance – well you’ll have to decide for yourself on that issue).
La Graine et le Mulet definitely gives an intimate portrait of family relationships and the difficulties of trying to start a business in France. No glossy veneer has been added to life in a low-income housing development where the theft of a motorbike for a joyride has fatal repercussions.
Should La Graine et le Mulet be considered a great film? I heartily agree with Heidi Ellison’s review “Too Much of a Good Thing”. La Graine et le Mulet needs editing!! Yes, there was at least one viewer who snored loudly. This is not Bollywood. The frequent, indulgent use of close-ups (particularly Herzi’s belly was really too much ‘in your face’).
Although the family scenes of a sit-down meal eating cous-cous were rich and sensual – the camera shifting from face to face, following dialogue, was extremely distracting. (This is what we’re taught NOT to do when making videos, right?).
Like fashion (a dress should make the woman look good) a camera should make the film look better. Ideally, one should never be aware of the camera. Close ups are too powerful a tool to make banal by overuse.
An excellent film. To be a accompanied by a good cous-cous meal in Paris.
More on cous-cous restaurants in tomorrow’s post.

Too Much of a Good Thing