Here is a film that just misses out on being great for lack of an editorial scalpel. La Graine et le Mulet, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and winner of three prizes at the Venice Film Festival, has an engaging plot and characters, talented actors, a sensual look and a naturalistic cinematic style, but Kechiche lets almost every scene go on too long. That may be a great way to show off the actors’ talents, but what audience wants to listen to interminable conversations about a two-year-old’s toilet training or watch a betrayed wife sob hysterically for a good five minutes, no matter how convincing the actress is? One can’t help thinking of the films of John Cassavetes (also beloved by the French critics, who were crazy about La Graine), but even that master of improvisation had his longueurs. This film’s story could easily have been told in an hour less than two hours and 31-minutes.
I would still recommend La Graine, however, for its many other charms. Bursting with life and humanity, it offers a rare cinematic window into the lives of ordinary Arab-French people. Set in the Mediterranean port of Sète, it tells the story of the defeated-looking 61-year-old Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), who loses his job in the shipyards at the beginning of the film. We quickly learn that he is a kindhearted man and meet his large family – ex-wife, children and grandchildren – as he travels around town on his motor scooter, delivering gifts of fresh fish to them. The only person who seems truly happy to receive it is his “stepdaughter,” Rym (Hafsia Herzi), the daughter of his girlfriend, who owns the hotel he lives in.
Slimane, who wants to have something to leave behind to his children and grandchildren, comes into possession of a decrepit boat and decides to turn it into a restaurant specializing in fish couscous, to be made by his ex-wife. To raise the money and get the necessary permissions, he makes the rounds of the banks and the municipal authorities, aided by the attractive young Rym, who bubbles over with youthful bravado and charm.
While the story revolves around Slimane, Rym is the most interesting character, and the exceptionally talented Herzi is the real star of the film. Slimane, stooped and inarticulate, seems totally worn down by life, and it seems unlikely that he would be chosen as the lover of the attractive hotel owner, much less have the ambition, drive and energy to turn a rusty old scow into a restaurant.
Kechiche, the surprise winner of the 2005 César (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for best film, director and screenplay for his sweet little movie L’Esquive, the story of a group of teenagers putting on a play in the Paris suburbs, is a director to watch. He has a penchant for tight close-ups, which become rather claustrophobic with overuse in La Graine, as he gets right up into the actors’ faces and lingers there, and an eye for sensual detail, especially the flash of a woman’s breast or thigh. In La Graine, he plunges us into the life of the family, but we fear we may drown from staying there too long. His methods do, however, leave us feeling that we know and care about these people.
For an example of how a family story can be told more effectively and economically, with few words, go see the excellent American indie film Shotgun Stories (just released in France), written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose main character is almost as laconic and withdrawn as Slimane.Favorite