Pras on World Films: HOME

In Ursula Meier’s stunning theatrical debut HOME (the official Swiss submission for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film), a family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened right next to their isolated property.  When the five members of the central family find their remote domestic paradise invaded by the reopening of the abandoned highway adjacent to their house, they resort to increasingly lunatic measures to block out the noise—it’s but a small step from earplugs to bricking up their house entirely.

HomeMichel (Olivier Gourmet) and his wife Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) are nonconformists who have consciously chosen to live as far away from others as possible. They have a house in the French countryside alongside a highway that has been left uncompleted for ten years. they live in a comfortable small home in the middle of vast fields and next to the highway, which hasn’t been used for 10 years. So much is the road their turf that the story begins with them playing a family game of street hockey on its pavement.Their kids have chosen different ways of adapting to their lifestyle: Judith (Adelaide Leroux) puts on a bikini, turns on loud music, and sunbathes; Marion (Madeleine Budd) does mathematical games to keep herself amused; and Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) rides his bike on the highway and loves his little pool.

One day, unexpectedly, construction workers appear on the scene and start laying down tar and lines down the center of the highway. Then big trucks arrive to lay down a fresh coating of asphalt, and steel guardrails are installed on each side and down the middle. Workmen wordlessly clear the highway of their hockey sticks, inflatable swimming pool, satellite dish, charcoal grill and so on. On the radio, they hear breathless coverage of the road’s grand opening, and eventually the first car speeds past their house.On the day of its opening, a radio announcer celebrates how much easier this will make life for drivers. So begins the nightmare for this closely bonded family used to privacy and the silence of the natural world.

Home, creepy home.

The opening scenes of Home—a nighttime game of street hockey, a bathing session that turns into a five-way splash fight—establish the anarchic sense of play that defines the interactions of the film’s central family, while the casual nudity on display hints at the vaguely incestuous tensions in this uniquely insular clan. The rest of Ursula Meier’s confident, appealingly bizarre theatrical debut subjects these tensions to the hothouse environment of a self-willed isolation.

The opening of the highway was not a surprise for them. But the heavy, unceasing traffic is a big problem. The two younger kids always ran across the bare pavement to cut through a field for school. Dad parked on the other side. Now even getting to the house is a problem. Marion the smart younger sister (Madeleine Budd) is concerned about carbon dioxide poisoning. Young Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) can’t safely get to his pals. Judith (Adelaide Leroux) continues to sunbathe in the front yard and gives the finger to honking truck drivers.

Film Still

Marthe is the one most seriously deranged by the noise pollution of trucks and cars whizzing by at all hours of the day and night. She can’t sleep and quickly becomes very irritable. Judith gets angry at the intruders but tries to shut them out with her music. She eventually runs away from home, fed up with this new development. Marion focuses on the problem of pollution and starts worrying about the toxic effect of all the cars and trucks on their bodies. She tries to scare Julien by checking his back for signs of poisoning. Michel purchases insulation for the house and then barricades the place shut with concrete bricks. It works for a while by blocking out the noise but they all suffer from claustrophobia.

Home is written and directed by Ursula Meier, and it is a very clever and creative film with its probes on family solidarity, change, the toxic residues of a car culture, and the physical, psychological and spiritual effects of noise pollution. In an idyllic scene, Marthe, Marion, and Julien escape the din and retreat to the countryside where they spend a quiet afternoon sleeping and sitting under a tree. In another, Michel unsuccessfully tries to drag his family from their home and force them to move. They refuse.

There are two questions never answered in the French film “Home.” How did this family come to live here? And why does the mother fiercely refuse to leave, even after a four-lane freeway opens in her front yard? Both are more satisfactory remaining as questions. Meier effectively communicates the sense of upended privacy, moving easily from the nighttime intrusion of brightly clad construction workers (the eye-straining oranges and yellows of their uniforms registering as a truly alien presence) to the incongruous sight of Isabelle Huppert tending her garden as blurry streaks of traffic zip by.

OriginalUrsula Meier (born 24 June 1971) is a French-Swiss film director who received the Best Director award at the 2008 Festival du Film Francophone d’Angoulême [Angoulême French-Language Film Festival] for her first theatrical feature, Home, which won the 2009 Swiss Film Prize for Bester Spielfilm [Best Film] as well as Bestes Drehbuch [Best Screenplay] (shared with Antoine Jaccoud). It also received France’s César nomination for Meilleur Premier Film [Best First Film] and a Best Film nomination at Argentina’s Mar del Plata Film Festival.

DIR                  Ursula Meier
PROD              Denis Delcampe, Denis Freyd, Thierry Spicher, Elena Tatti
SCR                 Ursula Meier, Alice Winocour, Antoine Jaccoud, Olivier Lorelle
DP                    Agnès Godard
CAST               Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, Adélaïde Leroux, Madeleine Budd, Kacey  Mottet Klein
ED                   François Gédigier, Nelly Quettier, Susana Rossberg
PROD DES    Ivan Niclass
SOUND         Étienne Curchod

Pras on World Films: THE SCRET OF THE GRAIN (“La Graine et le Mulet”)

Movies about food and family have become a genre unto themselves and, in many cases, sadly clichéd. But there’s a freshness to Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain (a.k.a. La graine et la mulet), the deserving winner of four César awards. Kechiche  (L’Esquive) brings an earnestness and rigor and cultural authenticity to his intergenerational drama, but more importantly, he captures the emotional rhythms of an extended family at its best (love and support) and worst (pettiness and neglect).

Slimane Beiji, the sad, still center of “The Secret of the Grain,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s bustling and brilliant new film, might be described as an accidental patriarch. A stubborn, taciturn immigrant from Tunisia, Slimane (Habib Boufares) has spent 35 years working in the shipyards of Sète, a rough little French port city on the Mediterranean coast. The other members of his large, cantankerous family — his former wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), and their assorted children and grandchildren — live mostly in a battered high-rise housing project.

Slimane, meanwhile, keeps a modest room in the blue-collar hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), and her 20-year-old daughter, Rym (the amazing Hafsia Herzi), on whom he dotes as if she were his own. The chief token of his benevolence is the fish Slimane collects from his fisherman buddies and dutifully delivers on his motorbike to the important women in his life: Souad; his older daughter, Karima (Faridah Benkhetache); and Latifa. Their freezers are overflowing with the mullet that is, in Tunisian tradition, served with couscous, the grain of this film’s title. When Souad cooks up a batch to feed various kids, friends and in-laws, she puts aside a serving for Slimane, who eats it in the spartan quarters he shares with a semimetaphorical caged bird. The kids tease their mother that Slimane’s fish-delivering visits and her cooking of couscous and fish for him signify an undying love.

These are the two delicacies—specialties of the house—that send the French-Arab family into ecstasy and encourage recently downsized sixty-one-year-old Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) to open a portside restaurant on a junked ship.

Since Slimane’s hopeful project of leaving the restaurant as a legacy for his children hinges largely on the celebrated cooking of Souad, Latifa is hurt and wary the closer Slimane gets to achieving the dream (it doesn’t help her ego that she’s a bad cook). Rym, on the other hand, gives unconditional support to Slimane, serving as his translator and business associate as they navigate the terrible bureaucratic hurdles endemic to opening a restaurant (Rym also acknowledges the greatness of the food, saying, “When there’s couscous like this, the world disappears”). More family drama comes from the worst-kept-secret of Majid’s philandering (despite having a newborn), which makes an emotional mess of his Russian wife Julia (Alice Houri). The issues converge in the extended climax that is the film’s third act: a test evening for the restaurant that has the city’s movers and shakers—the ones who can make or break the restaurant—impatiently awaiting the couscous and fish they’ve heard so much about.

The richness of “The Secret of the Grain” lies in the close, tireless, enthusiastic attention it pays to the most mundane daily tasks, especially those involving food.operators, among others.  In France, where the movie won four César awards earlier this year, the secret is omitted, and the film is known simply as “La Graine et le Mulet.”

Though the story lightly touches on issues of Arab integration in the notion of struggling to get approval to take an open spot on the coveted quai de la République (the waterfront of the Republic), the film’s engaging textures mostly come back to food and family. Despite many of the actors being non-professionals, the characters are thoroughly believable. Houri has an amazing tear-laced rant about Majid, and Herzi astonishes with a heroic belly-dance, but it’s not only the pyrotechnics that impress: playing a role intended for Kechiche’s real-life father (who passed away before production), Boufares makes Slimane’s quiet determination resonate, especially as it grows quietly fretful. The soul of the picture is the father’s sacrifice for his family, and when the film, as it must, comes to an end after two and a half hours, you won’t be ready; the bond made to this family makes its sudden absence feel downright brutal.

Mr. Kechiche started out as an actor and has established himself, after directing three features (“La Faute à Voltaire” and “L’Esquive” before this one), as one of the most vital and interesting filmmakers working in France today. In “The Secret of the Grain” he immerses us in the hectic, tender, sometimes painful details of work and domesticity. The camera bobs and fidgets in crowded rooms full of noisy people, so that your senses are flooded with the warmth and stickiness of Slimane and Souad’s family circle. The scenes, though they feel improvised, at times almost accidentally recorded, have a syncopated authenticity for which the sturdy old word realism seems inadequate.

Hafsia Herzi, left, and Habib Boufares in “The Secret of the Grain.”

Not many directors would linger so long, for example, over a toilet-training-related battle of wills between a mother and her 2-year-old, and then pause later to observe a discussion of the same subject among a group of adults at a party. But when Mr. Kechiche does just that, you may wonder why so few have bothered before. After all, the messy particulars of child rearing preoccupy every family in every culture and provide an inexhaustible vein of humor, anxiety and contention.

And the richness of “The Secret of the Grain” — the secret, as it were, of its deep and complex flavor — lies in the close, tireless, enthusiastic attention it pays to the most mundane daily tasks, especially those involving food.

The depth of Mr. Kechiche’s humanism and his subtle insights into the political dimensions of ordinary experience link his film to the great works of late-period Neo-Realism, even if his anarchic methods have more in common with those of a post-’60s skeptical realist like Mike Leigh than with the old Italian masters. “The Secret of the Grain” is in some ways the descendant of a movie like “Rocco and His Brothers,” Luchino Visconti’s long, gloriously novelistic 1960 melodrama about a family of migrants that travels from southern Italy to work in the factories of the north.

In the background of “The Secret of the Grain” is a similar migration that began in the 1960s, when men and women like Slimane and Souad left the newly liberated North African French colonies to seek their fortunes in metropolitan France, a country they regarded as both benefactor and oppressor. In the decades since, France has reluctantly claimed them and their children as citizens, even as it has stigmatized and marginalized them, and this mutual ambivalence is the implicit subject of this movie and its unstated context. (Mr. Kechiche was born in Tunis in 1960.)

But as he did in “L’Esquive,” in which the exalted idiom of Classical French literature collided and commingled with the polyglot vernacular of the modern French suburbs, Mr. Kechiche declines to dole out obvious, easily assimilated lessons.

Life is just too complicated, too unpredictable, too hard and too fascinating. Even as Slimane’s story is one of frustration and unfulfilled ambition — after his hours at the shipyard are cut back, he pursues the quixotic dream of converting an abandoned boat into a dockside couscous restaurant — “The Secret of the Grain” bursts with exuberance and irrepressible sensuality. This is mostly thanks to the women in the movie, who through charm, guile and sheer force of will turn the austere fable of their melancholy paterfamilias into a party. It is not that they are naturally carefree but rather that their cares are so tightly woven into their lives that the only practical alternative to despair is an unruly, militant joy.

Karima, Souad and Rym are at once Slimane’s foils — their bodies are as curvy as his is gaunt, while their frank, abundant talk serves as counterpoint to his decorous silence — and the pillars on which he leans for support. They protect his dignity by declining to point out just how much he depends on them, and allowing him to believe that the opposite is true.

The pathos of Slimane’s story (as well as the accomplishment of Mr. Boufares’s performance) arises partly from the understanding that this man, so committed to the idea of his own strength and resilience, is in the end so fragile.

To put it in slightly different terms, you could say that Slimane’s tragedy is that, having worked so hard for so long, he is left with so little. The couscous restaurant represents his last stand, his grand gesture of protest against a hard fate, and its opening night, teetering on the tightrope between triumph and calamity, is Mr. Kechiche’s tour de force.

An entire family chronicle, along with four decades of French social and economic history, is recapitulated as a lavish, hectic dinner, complete with music and belly dancing. It will leave you stunned and sated, having savored an intimate and sumptuous epic of elation and defeat, jealousy and tenderness, life and death, grain and fish.

Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; director of photography, Lubomir Bakchev; edited by Ghalya Lacroix and Camille Toubkis; produced by Claude Berri; released by IFC Films.

WITH: Habib Boufares (Slimane), Hafsia Herzi (Rym), Faridah Benkhetache (Karima), Abdelhamid Aktouche (Hamid), Bouraouïa Marzouk (Souad), Hatika Karaoui (Latifa) and Alice Houri (Julia).

Title: The Secret of the Grain
Running Time: 151 MinutesStatus: Released
Country: France
Genre: Drama, Family, Foreign