Pras on World Films: LA RAFLE (“The Round-up”)

LA RAFLE is a fact-based drama about the 1942 Paris police roundup of 13,000 French  Jewish nationals and recent immigrants (many fleeing the Nazi regime) and their confinement in the Vel’ d’Hiv bicycle arena by French police acting under Nazi orders. The men, women, and children languished in a stadium prior to being deported to the Beaune-La-Rolande and then on to Auschwitz. The most laudable thing Bosch does, albeit with broad strokes and outsized characterizations, is intercut theLa Rafle became a huge box-office hit in France in the first half of 2010, and its audiences included thousands of young people who came to learn about a dark chapter in their country’s history.

Watch another great film on the same theme of the Vel D’Hive Roundup Incident: SARAH’S KEY (reviewed here).

On July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police, under the Vichy regime of France, on instructions from the German occupation authorities, arrested 13,152 Jews in preparation for their deportation, and crammed about 8000 of them (1,129 men, 2,916 women, and 4,115 children) into a multi-purpose stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel d’Hive), the winter velodrome, located not far from the Eiffel Tower.  They were held there for four days, with no food, one water faucet, no toilets, and no ventilation. The doors were locked and the windows screwed shut to prevent escape. Ultimately these Jews were deported to exterminated camps, where they were killed. Of the 13,152 Jews arrested, only about 100 survived. The incident is particularly embarrassing to France because of the number of people arrested (the largest of any French arrests during the Occupation) and the willingness and eagerness of French authorities to cooperate with the Germans, even going above and beyond their demands (the French arrested even children, even though the Germans had not asked for kids).

The stadium Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel d’Hive) itself was demolished in 1959, and the space is now occupied by the Ministry of the Interior, the same government agency that carried out the arrests in 1942.

The screenplay for La Rafle was based on extensive research by the writer-director Roselyn Bosch and the Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld.

Children cry as they were being held in

France’s shameful effort to appease the Nazis is told mostly from the perspective of a young Jewish boy (Hugo Leverdez) named Jo, who is based on the accounts of a real-life survivor. Jo’s family ignores the warning signs until the dead-of-night gendarme raids, the planning of which by indifferent Vichy officials Boche occasionally shows with particularly wound-opening contempt.The family in focus are the Weismanns, with father Schmuel (Gad Elmaleh, wise-cracking but not infallible), mother Sura (Raphaëlle Agogué), sister Rachel (Rebecca Marder), and the baby of the family Jo (Hugo Leverdez), who pinches cigarettes from undernearth Nazi boots with best friend Simon (Oliver Cywie) and Simon’s little brother Nono (twins Mathieu and Romain Di Concerto). The site of the sickly yellow Magen David, the sixpoint star synonymous with the Jews, pinned to the clothing of every future victim is still enough to deliver chills.

In picturesque Montmarte, three children wearing a yellow star play in the streets, oblivious to the darkness spreading over Nazi-occupied France. Their parents do not seem too concerned either, somehow putting their trust in the Vichy Government. But beyond this view, much is going on. Hitler demands that the French government round up its Jews and put them on trains for the extermination camps in the East. The collaborators start to put the plan into effect and within a short time, 13,000 of Paris’s Jews, among them 4,000 children, will be rounded up and sent on a road with no return. The fateful date: July 16th, 1942, 68 years ago.

With a meticulously constructed script based on extensive research and first-hand accounts, writer/director Roselyne Bosch brings to the screen one of the most moving dramas of the year. Powered by fluid direction and a string of international stars- including Jean Reno (The Da Vinci Code, Leon: The Professional), Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, The Concert) and Gad Elmaleh (Priceless) – La Rafle became a huge box-office hit in France in the first half of 2010, and its audiences included thousands of young people who came to learn about a dark chapter in their country’s history.

Melanie Laurent (“Beginners”) gives an inspiring performance as a gentile nurse who goes along to treat the prisoners and their children on their journey to the death camps; Jean Reno, monument of French cinema, is just right as the overwhelmed Jewish doctor trying to single-handedly treat 13,000 doomed patients. The hero is plucky, real-life Jo Weissman (Hugo Leverdez), who makes a break for it after losing his mother (the beautiful Raphaëlle Agogué), lives to a ripe old age and helps make the viewer forget what really happened.

Historical context in the film is provided by actual footage representing Hitler at his Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden or the Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval signing off on the deportations.


By Phillip Valys, Staff writer at South Florida Sun-Sentinel  |  Feb 24, 2012

Rosette Goldstein, 73, of Boca Raton, is a Holocaust survivor has firsthand experience of the French roundup on July 16, 1942, which is recounted in the French drama “La Rafle” opening Friday in area theaters. The photos behind her are of her parents and of herself as a child.

Rosette Goldstein was 5 when French police rounded up her father and shipped him via railroad to the Buchenwald death camp. Goldstein, now 73 and a resident of Boca Raton, was living in Paris when French police, in the early-morning hours of July 16, 1942, thundered into homes and yanked out 13,000 Jewish men, women and children. They would be detained for several days inside the city’s indoor velodrome, malnourished and teeming with disease, before being shipped to Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The French government’s complicity during World War II in transporting its own Jewish citizens to Nazi camps is the subject of the French film “La Rafle,” which made its South Florida debut Feb. 17 but premieres tonight at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale.

Goldstein is one of an estimated 6,000 Holocaust survivors residing in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, said Jack Karako, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s southeast office in Boca Raton.

“The film is absolute truth,” said Goldstein, who watched “La Rafle” (or “The Roundup”) this past November during a Boca Raton fundraiser for the Holocaust organization March of the Living. “They arrested all the Jews on the outskirts of Paris and brought them to the Velodrome d’Hiver. There were many French who were for the deportation of Jews. It was a bad time – very, very bad.

“The only ones who survived were my mother and myself,” Goldstein added.

Roselyne Bosch, the director of “La Rafle,” said in an email that the “wound is still infectious” for roundup survivors. “There was nothing a human heart could do in front of babies being torn away from their mothers’ arms,” said Bosch, a former investigative journalist, whose film was a 2010 hit in France. “Seventy years after the facts, those children, when they miraculously survived, are now in their 80s. The velodrome was never properly shown, nor the dreadful conditions of the detainees, so I decided to go after the truth.”

Neil Friedman, the president of Menemsha Films, said he chose South Florida for the U.S. theatrical release of “La Rafle” for the tri-county’s large population of Holocaust survivors and because the SNCF, the French national railroad that transported Jews to death camps, sought a state contract in 2010 to develop Florida’s high-speed rail system.

“South Florida’s a nexus,” Friedman said. “The idea of having the French railroad competing for a contract in the same state, where there is a large concentration of Holocaust survivors is a huge irony. The railroad got paid, per head and per kilometer, for the transport of these folks to their deaths. It’s a horrible concept.”

Georges Miliband, 81, of Delray Beach, lost his mother and all three of his younger sisters during the Vel d’Hiv roundup. He survived on dumb luck: The day before, his mother had scrounged up enough money to send Miliband, then 12, to a private-school gathering 25 miles outside Paris. French police rounded up his family and transported them to the velodrome, and later, by railroad cattle car, straight to the Auschwitz gas chambers. The private school’s headmistress hid Miliband – whose surname he said was “very French and not Jewish-sounding” – and a handful of other Jewish children until the Americans liberated Paris in 1945.

Miliband said the depictions of the velodrome in “La Rafle” triggered painful memories of his siblings. “For the rest of my life, whenever I see any movies relating for the Holocaust, when I see children, I think of my sisters, and I break down,” Miliband said with a sob. “My sisters – the children – had nothing to do with the war. I always had a big problem with seeing children getting killed.”

Charlotte Gal’s “un-Jewish” surname likewise saved her, her younger brother and her mother from the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Her father had been deported from France to Auschwitz a month earlier, so her mother suspected they were next. That morning, the thud of boot steps passed right by her apartment door, so when the complex finally got quiet, they split and escaped to the French and Italian Alps. For three years, the Italian Underground helped hide the trio until Allied Forces liberated the city of Rome.

“I’m an old lady now, but it never goes away, the memories. We were the lucky ones. My mother, my brother and I were never caught,” said Gal, now 76 and living in Boca. “I remember climbing to the roof of a Christian convent when the American fighter pilots came. They threw down packets of chewing gum, but none of us knew what chewing gum was. So we ate it and when the sweetness went away, we swallowed it whole.”

Gal has not seen the movie. She’s not sure she wants to.

For Goldstein, the film showed her the charity of French gentile families, but also the horrible, stark reminders of what she lost during the roundup. “There were some wonderful, helpful people portrayed in the film, just like the farmer family who saved my life at the peril of losing their own,” she said. “But there was no doubt I was frightened. You had to become an adult very fast in those times.”

NEW YORK TIMES | July 17, 1995


PARIS, July 16 — Barely two months after taking office, President Jacques Chirac today publicly recognized France’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War II.

His statement put an end to decades of equivocations by successive French Governments about France’s wartime role.

“These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions,” he said during ceremonies marking the 53d anniversary of the first mass arrests of Jews in Paris. “Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.”

By his outright denunciation of the role played by both French citizens and the French state in deporting some 76,000 French and foreign Jews, Mr. Chirac went well beyond the positions of his predecessors.

For the first 25 years after the war, French leaders held Nazi Germany solely responsible for the deportations. More recently, in an argument that Jewish groups saw as sophistry, they have blamed the collaborationist wartime government based in Vichy, absolving the French state.

Mr. Chirac said today that on July 16, 1942, French police helped to round up some 13,000 Jewish men, women and children. They were crammed into the Vel d’Hiv, an indoor cycling stadium, before being interned in the Paris suburb of Drancy and then deported to death camps.

Speaking at a memorial to these victims before a small crowd that included Jewish leaders as well as some Jewish death camp survivors, Mr. Chirac admitted France’s “collective error.”

“France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable,” Mr. Chirac said. “Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.” Of the victims, he said, “we owe them an everlasting debt.”

His remarks were warmly welcomed by Jewish leaders here. Joseph Sitruk, the chief rabbi of Paris, said he was “fully satisfied” with the President’s statement. Jean Kahn, president of the European Jewish Congress, said Jews as well as all those who fought the Nazis “must have been delighted to hear these words.” Serge Klarsfeld, a French lawyer and renowned Nazi-hunter, said “this speech contained everything we hoped to hear one day.”

Yet, even now, it may not be easy for France to turn over these black pages of its history. Just this weekend, Mr. Klarsfeld raised another difficult issue. He said the French state confiscated money, property and valuables from Jews being deported from France and then failed to return these assets or pay reparations to surviving children of deportees.

“The families of the deported never got anything back,” he said in an interview with the newspaper Liberation. “The Fourth Republic simply took their property, jewelry and objects. They stole money from parents and then did not pay it back to the children.” He added that reparations paid by postwar Germany were also not passed to children of foreign Jews deported from France. It is now time, he said, for the French state to make amends.

Another unresolved matter is the case of Maurice Papon, a former Vichy official and former Gaullist minister who is now in his 80’s. He has been charged with crimes against humanity for his involvement in deportation of Jews from Bordeaux, but his trial has been repeatedly delayed for more than a decade, raising suspicions that French judicial authorities were trying to postpone it indefinitely.

Still, by seizing this opportunity to confront France’s wartime past so soon after taking office, Mr. Chirac has shown that he is eager not only to defuse an issue that has increasingly troubled France, but also to demonstrate that he does not share the often ambivalent views of his immediate predecessor, Francois Mitterrand.

Mr. Mitterrand did not deny the role of the Vichy Government, headed by Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, in sending tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths, but he always argued that Vichy — and not France or the French Republic — was to blame. “I will not apologize in the name of France,” he said only last September. “The Republic had nothing to do with this. I do not believe France is responsible.”

Last year, however, Mr. Mitterrand’s own past became part of the debate when he admitted that, before joining the French resistance in 1943, he worked as a bureaucrat for 18 months for the Vichy regime. Further, he refused to apologize for his postwar friendship with a former Vichy police official, Rene Bousquet.

Mr. Mitterrand said he had ended this relationship in the mid-1980’s after Mr. Bousquet was charged with crimes against humanity for organizing mass deportations of Jews. But many French were dismayed that Mr. Mitterrand should have associated with a man known to be an important figure in the Vichy regime. Mr. Bousquet was murdered by a deranged gunman in 1991, before he went on trial.

In contrast, Mr. Chirac, who is 64 years old, belongs to a postwar generation of French politicians. Further, as a lifelong Gaullist, the new French President has always identified with General de Gaulle and his battle against Vichy from exile in London. And today Mr. Chirac also spoke of “the France that was never at Vichy” and that was always “correct, generous, faithful to its traditions, to its spirit.”

Yet his main purpose was clearly to look at the ugly side of France’s wartime record. “To recognize the errors of the past and the errors committed by the state and not to hide the dark hours of our history, that is plainly the way to defend a vision of man, of his freedom and dignity,” he said.

President Jacques Chirac spoke yesterday at a memorial at the site of a Paris cycling stadium where 13,000 Jews were held on July 16, 1942, before being sent to Nazi death camps. In his remarks, he fully recognized the French state’s role in the deportations, ending decades of equivocation on the subject. (Associated Press)

Pras on World Films: POLISSE


French actress turned director Maïwenn’s socially-minded film  POLISSE is a dramatically ensemble portrait of the French police, a collage of characters, narratives, and tones centered on a dozen men and women who work for the Child Protection Unit in Paris. It is packed with raw, visceral performances from an accomplished cast.This raucous, close-knit group, which goes after molesters and abusive parents, and finds shelters for unwanted children, is constantly in action. Its emotionally grueling work seeps into its members’ often-chaotic home lives. POLISSE was a winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and one of the most successful films of 2011 in France,  POLISSE was nominated for 13 Cesar Awards including Best Film, Director and 6 individual acting nominations for its phenomenal ensemble cast.

Though it is a fictional feature (written by Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot), “Polisse” feels less dramatized than witnessed. It has a rough, ragged narrative structure and a correspondingly hectic visual style. It plows through some harsh, horrifying realities with unflinching sobriety, concerned less with social problems than with facts and in the process illuminates French society with a toughness and fidelity that few other recent movies have dared. The film uses actual events from the files of a real-life police unit, and the gritty realism is evident throughout the film. It aims for a picture of the underbelly of life that is at once broad and biting, and it is successful most the time. Though the cases we see – molestation, exploitation, heartbreaking poverty – are gripping, the main focus of this drama is the officers themselves.


 Maïwenn has gathered an accomplished ensemble cast of French actors—including Polisse (movie) Maïwenn as Melissa in ``Polisse.''Karin Viard, Marina Foïs, co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and rapper-turned-actor Joeystarr—who convey the emotional strain of the unit’s work with gritty realism (the director herself plays the role of a photographer embedded within the unit).  Poliss covers much ground, and even with its loose threads and frenzied structure, it convincingly jumps from laughter to tears and back again, never losing sight of the brutal realities at its core.


The cases these officers deal with — parents who sexually abuse their children or force them to commit crimes; children who do terrible harm to themselves and one another — routinely expose the foulest aspects of human nature. The members of the Child Protection Unit must also contend with bureaucratic intransigence, petty corruption and perpetual competition for scarce resources. And also, once they leave work, with messy marriages, tumultuous friendships and the ordinary pains of adulthood.

One of the themes of “Polisse” is the fundamental benevolence of the state, an idea alien to American viewers. The idealism that Maïwenn detects beneath the grit is nonetheless disarming. Instead of overt displays of heroism or resistance, there are the satisfactions and frustrations of difficult labor in a righteous cause.

Another theme, one that emerges through scenes that are especially painful for being utterly matter of fact, is the pervasiveness of violence, sexual and otherwise, against girls. Polisse (movie) A scene from ``Polisse.''An officer is so spooked by cases of incest and molestation that he has difficulty giving his own young daughter a bath. One of his colleagues, a woman from a Muslim background, explodes in rage at a smug imam who plans to marry off his underage daughter. An upper-class father, arrested for raping his daughter, is almost boastful about what he has done. There are boys who suffer too, but “Polisse” makes a devastating, empirical argument that female children are especially vulnerable.

From its opening scene, in which a little girl tells one of the officers, Chrys (Karole Rocher), that her father sometimes “scratches her butt,” the film presents the difficulties in distinguishing truth from speculation in child sex abuse cases, especially when kids and parents offer conflicting testimonies, or take issue with police workers poking into their private lives. Maiwenn and co-writer-star Emmanuelle Bercot insert a number of such interrogations throughout the story, and they run the gamut from disturbing to hilarious to downright tragic, especially in one emotional wallop of a sequence where a little boy is separated from a mother who can’t provide him adequate shelter.That moment occurs about midway through the movie, and that fact that it runs on for longer than expected is Polisse (movie) A scene from ``Polisse.'' revealing of Maiwenn’s approach to such uneasy material. Instead of playing scenes safely via evocative cutaways or trying to up the cute factor whenever a kid appears on screen, she allows – like fellow French directors Abdellatif Kechiche or the late Maurice Pialat – for the intensity of the situation to take over in all its rawness. Another prime example is a late scene between two officers and sometime buddies, Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Fois), whose explosive office shouting match is something to behold.Very much like David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series, Poliss concentrates on the strain the job puts on policemen and women who deal day in day out with hard knocks cases and bureaucratic pigeonholing, and how that affects their generally chaotic home lives. In fact, all of them, including Melissa (Maiwenn), the timid photographer who’s been commissioned by the Interior Ministry to document the unit’s activities, are undergoing either a divorce, a separation, or are defiantly and unhappily single.

While these cops work very hard to mend other peoples’ nightmares, they are unable, through the sheer exhaustion of their métier, to take care of themselves, relying on each other for all kinds of support, friendship, or, in a few instances, love.Their work hard, play hard attitude is best exemplified by Fred (Joeystarr), a wiry cop whose estrangement from his own daughter makes him take every case to heart, putting him increasingly at odds with a superior (Frederic Pierrot) who caves in too easily to the power above.

Polisse Movie PosterThe film is designed to look as if it were haphazardly put together, with quick editing, a huge load of characters, and cases that weave in and out without resolution. At times, this style is quite immersive.  If the film suffers from anything, its still the writers’ choice to shove in so many plots, subplots, and episodes within its limited running time, and the finale especially takes a turn that doesn’t seem warranted by what preceded it. Because we haven’t had much chance to live with her story, her end feels inexplicable.  On the other hand, the film’s style doesn’t allow scenes and characters to unfold in anything like real time or even narrative time, causing an abruptness that undermines the storytelling. This is most evident in the ending, when an officer suddenly commits suicide.

Despite these, Polisse is a powerful document of how people deal with impossible situations. It is a brilliant example of how to show the strengths of an ensemble cast. It sustains the feeling of never-ending struggle that clearly hounds its characters, yet manages to do so without losing a certain cigarette-smoking, meal-enjoying languidness that seems unmistakably French.Whether performances were improvised or not is unclear, but they’re reigned in enough to feel polished and real. Ditto for the tech, which feels free and un-mannered as it captures the grittier neighborhoods of northeast Paris, though it never drops to the handheld quirks of many a young director.

Polisse (movie) A scene from ``Polisse.''“Polisse” feels a bit like a season of television compressed into a little more than two hours. (This theatrical cut was reportedly culled from nearly 150 hours of footage.) The action also veers now and then into melodramatic overstatement, in particular toward the end. But the messiness of the film seems appropriate to its subject, which is the attempt to bring at least a measure of order — and even a touch of grace — to a chaotic and frequently ugly reality.

POLISSE:         Directed by Maïwenn; written by Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot; director of photography, Pierre Aïm; edited by Laure Gardette and Yann Dedet; music by Stephen Warbeck; production design by Nicolas de Boiscuille; costumes by Marité Coutard; produced by Alain Attal; released by Sundance Selects. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Karin Viard (Nadine), Joeystarr (Fred), Marina Foïs (Iris), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Mathieu), Maïwenn (Melissa), Karole Rocher (Chrys), Emmanuelle Bercot (Sue Ellen), Frédéric Pierrot (Balloo), Arnaud Henriet (Bamako), Naidra Ayadi (Nora) and Jérémie Elkaïm (Gabriel).

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: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (“Zazie At The Metro” / French)

“All Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream…”

Louis Malle’s 1960 French comedy Zazie dans le métro is a children’s film dressed up in its grandparents’ clothes. This madcap, surreal look at one little girl’s day trip to Paris is silly fun, though alternately old fashioned and progressive, adopting well-worn styles of cinematic humor to toy with modern sensibilities. Slapstick and wordplay lend a quirky bend to Zazie’s world. Silent films are an influence, as are Looney Tunes, and like the best fairy tales, the wolf here has some particularly nasty teeth.

Based on the novel by Raymond Queneau, which subverted language in satiric ways and was considered unadaptable for film, Malle’s film translates the wordplay into a kind of visual anarchy while still fiddling with language. (The English subtitles do a good job of communicating the quirks, with translations like “Damgoddit” and “Hormosessual.”)

At the center of the chaos is Zazie played by child actor Catherine Demongeot, a sort of Pippi Longstocking by way of Chaplin’s The Kid. She is a sardonic and mischievous 10-year-old who gets left with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) while her mother goes off on a romantic weekend with her latest squeeze. Uncle has plans to show her the sights, but Zazie is only interested in going underground to ride the metro — an impossibility as the metro workers are on strike. Zazie is a prankster visiting with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret, Coup de Torchon) while her mother (Odette Piquet) has a quick fling with her new lover.

A tomboy with an uneven haircut and a foul mouth, Zazie does little to hide her casual contempt for the adult world surrounding her, and she doesn’t hesitate to falsely accuse adults of unspeakable acts or berate them for what she perceives as stupidity. 

Zazie makes for the reliably disdainful center of a film that is unreservedly manic and has Malle seemingly throwing stuff up on screen just to see if it’ll work. Much of the time it does, but Zazie’s pace is so frenetic, the comedy almost doesn’t register as such much of the time. It seems like it should be a laugh riot, but its breakneck speed and underlying cynical tone make for a film that’s more admirably nuts than outright funny.

As traffic piles up due to the strike, so do the absurdities. Zazie discovers her uncle is a dancer in a drag show, and she gets chased all over town by him and a disguise-wearing policeman (Vittorio Caprioli). Her misadventures take her all across the city, up the Eiffel Tower and into a flea market where she lusts after a pair of blue jeans. The whole movie is just a collection of random bits of fun, really.

The gregarious Gabriel is a bit of a loose cannon himself. He tells his niece that he’s a night watchman, but he’s really sneaking off to a nightclub where he dances in drag. He is not a “homosessual,” as the word is regularly mispronounced; on the contrary, he’s a

A Citroen Cityrama Bus


ladies man with a particularly gorgeous wife (a particularly gorgeous Carla Marlier). The wife also catches the lecherous eye of Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli, Il generale della Rovere, Dassin’s The Law), a rapscallion who followed Zazie home after his buying her “blew-jeans” failed to yield the desired results. A surprising joke later in the picture reveals he has been increasing the age of his prey throughout the day, though the older Madame Mwack (Yvonne Clech) jumps his age threshold. His motivation is just one of the many darker, adult jokes peppered in Zazie dans le métro, while the Madame Mwack character is one of the only times Malle’s movie proves to be mean-spirited. Unless the joke is that she’s not the “old hag” they keep calling her–which she’s not–and it’s a critique on the shallow prejudices of the other characters.

Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro is an exuberant blast of irreverence. Despite its proximity to the French New Wave, it bears almost no resemblance to the movement’s initial films, even if it consciously flouts classical cinematic convention in some related ways. Rather, Zazie most looks like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, with a nonstop barrage of gags, camera tricks and odd editing that turn 1960s Paris into a colorful and chaotic fantasy world.

In fact, there could be a lot of humor in Zazie dans le métro that has been lost across time and culture. The title refers to Zazie’s dream of riding the Parisian subways, something she does not get to do in the movie because the train staff is on strike. There is much debate over this method of employment protest, and Malle and his co-screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau (working from a book by Raymond Queneau) are clearly making a comment on current social issues. Excepting the most obvious of meanings, most of this kind of stuff went right over my head.

Thankfully, most of Zazie’s adventures don’t require any added insight. Unable to ride the rails, Zazie must create other mischief. She sneaks out of the house for some adventure. That’s when she meets Trouscaillon. Running away from him is one of the many inspired chase sequences in the film. She leads him through back alleys and shopping districts for a series of gags, which grow increasingly implausible, the brunette Jerry getting away from the aging Tom. Later, Gabriel is hijacked by a tour bus, and Zazie and Mwack must pursue him through clogged traffic. Malle and his editor, Kenout Peltier, favor quick cuts, snipping out middle bits, moving their characters willy nilly through the scenes. They also play with film speed and crank the audio, and something completely nonsensical could be lurking around any corner. The guy in the polar bear suit eventually has his place, but at first, he’s just a random bit of fun.

The film is a pure blast of chaos and charm, with a winning young star and a cast of gung-ho supporting players who really get into the spirit of the thing. It is slapstick verité, embracing the oft undervalued tendency for the nouvelle vague not to take itself too seriously. (Indeed, listen for the swipe Malle takes at his compatriots in the new wave in one off-hand joke.) It’s no surprise that Zazie is considered a cult movie, as it is a peculiar concoction, playing acquired sensibilities in the broadest manner. If you can keep pace with its precocious star, then there is much joy to be had; if you can’t, then maybe you weren’t much fun to begin with.

Zazie dans le métro however, is an odd duck amongst Louis Malle’s filmography–but then, it would be an odd duck in just about any filmography. This screwy kinda-sorta kid’s picture takes audiences on a wild romp through Paris, led by a merry trickster named Zazie. The girl goes looking for fun, poking at the bloated self-importance of adult mores in the process, and Malle delivers strings of gags and crazy chases, bringing the whole of French society into his cinematic pie fight. (Or, make that a sauer kraut and schnitzel fight.) It’s breezy fun, though like an overly precocious child, could wear out its welcome for some viewers.


By rights, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro ought to rank quite highly among the great unfilmable novels of the 20th century. Rife with a peculiar francophonic mix of slang, wordplay, and toilet humor, and compressed into an all-in-a-day temporality, the sometime surrealist and Oulipo-founder’s hugely popular 1959 children’s book owes more than a little to James Joyce’s Ulysses and, though a fraction of the length, may be just as dense. All the more impressive, then – if not foolhardy – that Louis Malle chose to adapt the novel just a year after its publication. Riding high on the success of 1958’s The Lovers – only his second feature, an international sensation, and the film that prompted Justice Potter Stewart to declare that he knew pornography when he saw it – Malle must have felt emboldened to try something completely different. This would not be the last time – he famously made a career of tonal and stylistic 180s – but Zazie dans le métroseems a weird film even for Malle, a giddy foray into farce where nothing remains still (or intact) for long. But perhaps fittingly, it’s also a film that captures the director’s sense of the mercurial nature of identity with a kind of gleeful, manic relish.

1960 was, a year for bold statements in French cinema. Godard’s Breathless hit Paris theaters in March, hot on the heels of Truffaut’s 400 Blows the previous year. Malle’s films often dovetail quite neatly with those of the Nouvelle vague, even anticipating their work in some ways, but he was never quite a card-carrying New-Waver. In many ways, he was much more of a self-conscious craftsman, even taking pains to highlight his IDHEC training against his contemporaries’ more off-the-cuff amateurism. Thus the joke that comes early in his Zazie: a gaggle of characters hops into an old clunker that won’t start, and one character quips, “What do you want? It’s the Nouvelle vague!” Just like the métro, which is hobbled by a perpetual strike for the duration of the film, everything about the hip, new cinematic Paris is shabby, chaotic, and dysfunctional.

At the same time, Zazie’s Paris is still very much the same urban playground as that of Godard and Truffaut, a vivid wonderland of possibility and romance for its inhabitants. But for Zazie, the strong-willed, free-spirited, slightly malevolent, and alternately charming and irritating little gamine of the film’s title, it’s also an invitation to derision, mischief, and hilarity, an adult world that’s easily mocked, subverted, and manipulated for the purpose of acquiring more important things, like ice-cream and blue jeans. (The realization of her grandest wish, a ride on the métro, is hampered that pesky labor strike.) Zipping into Paris from the provinces with her promiscuous mother, who’s in town for a 24-hour lovers’ tryst and hastily foists the brat on her odd, enormous Uncle Gabriel, the unremittingly precocious Zazie takes the opportunity to wreak havoc on Paris’s community of heterogeneous weirdoes by shoplifting, casting insults, and making lewd comments and accusations. (Both Queneau’s “children’s” novel and Malle’s “children’s” film are remarkably inappropriate for children.) When a kindly lady, late in the film, gently advises Zazie that she should not brutalize big people, Zazie responds with her favorite catchphrase: “My ass!”

Declaring that her aspiration is to be a teacher just so she can “piss off the little brats,” Zazie functions as a parodic opposite to the sensitive and introspective young Antoine Doinel (to say nothing of the tender, airborne lad of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon). But even so, she also asserts a theme dear to Truffaut: the resilience of children in the face of cruelty, even perversity, of the adult world. If anything, it’s the grown-ups who are the crazy ones, awkward messes of contrary passions and pretensions. None so embodies these contradictions as Uncle Gabriel (a wonderful early performance by Philippe Noiret), the eloquent, pompous, dimwitted, and perfumed dandy, who spends his nights as a Spanish ballerina. (“An elephant in a tutu,” Zazie later describes him, once she finally learns the truth about his occupation.) Though Zazie often accuses him of being a “hormosessuel,” despite not knowing what the word means, he attracts all manner of affection from lady-admirers and is married to the stunning Albertine, who is herself a paradox, being somehow icy and doting all at once. (She will enact her own sort of transgender performance by the film’s end.) And then there’s Trouscallion, a.k.a. Pedro Surplus, a.k.a. Aroun Arachide: policeman, con man, or pervert (what’s the difference?), who shadows Zazie around Paris with indefinite – but definitely creepy – intensions. Against all this polymorphous perversity, Zazie’s embarrassing, foul-mouthed frankness seems wholly warranted.

To match Zazie’s adorable abuse of her elders, Malle imports a great deal of Queneau’s verbal acrobatics (subtitlists, beware!), while deploying seemingly every cinematic sleight of hand he can think of (or afford). He shows a particular flair for silent-comedy camera-tricks and devices: jump-cuts and fast-motion, endless slapstick and chase sequences, continuity craziness and sub-Mélièsian mischief. Characters change wardrobes, genders, even races within a single sequence, scenery shifts under the actors’ feet or collapses on their heads, and any kind of violence – from slaps to muggings to gunshots to the head – might occur at any moment. An utterly queasy sequence atop the Eiffel Tower and a logic-free car chase in a traffic jam suggest a Parisian cityscape in which the four fundamental interactions of physics simply do not apply. Even the billboards that form the city’s backdrop – massive nonsensical Cubist assemblages of colors and letters designed by photographer, filmmaker, and former Fernand Léger student William Klein – give the sense of a world completely unmoored from reason. (And this several years ahead of Godard’s masterful détournements of advertising and the printed word in A Married Woman and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.)

All of this concludes the only way it can: with a riot, and an extraordinarily drunken and violent one at that. In this mélee – which Queneau described as a “magma humain” – wait-staff, tourists, neighborhood cranks, and a torch-juggling polar bear demolish a restaurant before being descended upon by a sinister gang of police and brown-shirts. For a film that seems so deceptively apolitical and jolly, it’s a shocking, dark, and brutal ending, played with the cavalier attitude of a Frank Tashlin finale or a live-action approximation of The Itchy & Scratchy Show.

But Zazie, forever nonplussed by the lunacy of the adult-world and tuckered out from a long day of crafty subversion, sleeps through the whole thing. After fomenting a revolution, she misses the war, now seemingly exhausted by the intolerably juvenile behavior of her elders. And even after the strike ends, she still misses her chance to ride the métro.

Zazie dans le métro was filmed at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and Criterion’s full frame high-def transfer presents the image as intended, with a strong, nuanced color palette that contrasts the colorful world of Zazie’s imagination with the realities of 1960s Paris. Details are strong, with natural skin tones and nice attention paid to texture, particularly fabrics. Gabriel’s checkered suit would have caused havoc on older televisions, but every black-and-white square is evident here. In a couple of scenes, the grain threatens to overwhelm the screen, but these appear to be spots where the original film also would have lacked the sharpness of the surrounding material. The print is otherwise free of scratches or damage, and there is no digital noise to speak of.

The French soundtrack has been mixed as an uncompressed monaural audio track. The sound is clear and crisp, with good volume levels and no distortion.

The optional English subtitles are well done and easy to read.

Criterion releases Zazie dans le métro in its usual packaging model, with a double-sided cover and a thick accompanying booklet. The book features photos, credits, new liner notes, and additional illustrations by cover artist Yann Legendre.

On-disc extras begin with vintage interviews with Malle, two with the original author Raymond Queneau, and Zazie herself, Catherine Demongeot. These all come from French TV from around the time of the film’s release, totaling nearly half an hour all together. There is also a pre-existing interview (about 10 minutes) with screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who went on to direct many films himself; here he is discussing working with Louis Malle.

Le Paris de Zazie is a short film from 2005 revisiting the movie’s locations with the assistant director, Philippe Collin. It’s always interesting to see what changes and what stays the same over the years.

Pras on World Films: THE INTOUCHABLES

The Intouchables is an award  starring Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet. A moving true story of 2 men – a quadriplegic aristocrat who was injured in a paragliding accident and a young man from the projects. When together, they’re inseparable, intouchable.

The film by French writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, is the inspiring true story of two men who should never have met—a quadriplegic aristocrat who was injured in a paragliding accident and a young man from the projects. Its a portrait of friendship across the racial and economic divide. Francois Cluzet plays Philippe, who was paralyzed in a hang-gliding accident and now lives in a Parisian mansion attended by nervous servants. While interviewing new caregivers, Philippe meets Driss, a a tough young Senegalese man from the Paris projects  who’s only applying for the job so he can get his unemployment check. Impressed by Driss’ bluntness and lack of sympathy, Philippe hires Driss and moves him into his mansion, where Driss reluctantly learns his duties from the housemistress (played by Anne Le Ny) and in the process, helps Philippe to loosen up and embrace life. By making Driss and Philippe fully realized characters (the film is based on a true story) with histories and lots to learn about life and each other, The Intouchables manages to escape the trappings of the Magic Negro genre to be a film about an unlikely but wonderful friendship between actual humans.Its a a wildly successful French comedy that trades on racial cliches, manages to be charming and offensive at the same time.

They learn that sometimes you have to reach into someone else’s world to find what’s missing in your own. Not quite on doctor’s orders, And while Driss does help Philippe intouchablesembrace life beyond his disability, including a scene where Driss gets uptight white people at Philippe’s birthday party to boogie down to Earth, Wind, and Fire, it’s not a one-way exchange. Moving into Philippe’s mansion, Driss steps away from a background of poverty, family dysfunction and trouble with the police. Under his boss’s stern gaze and imperious tutelage he starts to acquire a work ethic and a sense of discipline. Through working with and spending time with Philippe, Driss surprises himself by becoming a much more caring and responsible person, realizing that there’s a bigger world out there and he has potential beyond hanging out and smoking weed with his friends. In exchange, he helps Philippe discover his appetite for life and his capacity for joy. He introduces Philippe to the pleasures of marijuana, encourages him to start dating and loosens up a stuffy chamber-music soiree with some funky music.

The Intouchables hit a nerve with French audiences, critics hailing it as a cultural milestone and Liberation asking, “Is this the new Amélie?” As Driss, television comedian Sy not only earned rave comparisons to Eddie Murphy but also took home the Best Actor Award at this year’s Césars, beating out none other than The Artist’s Jean Dujardin. In one of the best opening scenes in recent memory, a young black guy and an older white guy are slaloming through the streets of Paris in a Maserati with a parade of police on their tail.They’re clearly close friends, but what’s their story? How did they meet? What led to this impromptu high-speed chase? Funny you should ask … cue the film, which unreels as flashback.

In the old days the French view of America’s race problem (as it used to be called) was tinged with pity and superiority. African-American artists and intellectuals — Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and too many jazz musicians to name — went to Paris to find respect and relief from the bigotry at home, and many contemporary French observers took this fact as confirmation of their own country’s relative innocence. More recently, as France has grappled with immigration and its rapidly evolving identity as a multicultural society, such smugness has dropped away, and much of the best recent French film and literature grapples earnestly with this new situation. America has a racial-guilt problem. France’s might be more insidious.  What “The Intouchables” does cannot exactly be called grappling, and its genial parade of stereotypes may be more regressive than liberating. Given its subject, embarrassment may be both inevitable and forgivable. Race, in France as in the United States, is a perpetual source of confusion and discomfort; to address it is always, in some way, to get it wrong. “The Intouchables” sets out to convert that anxiety into easy laughter and also, like “The Help” and “The Blind Side,” to replace antagonism and incomprehension with comfort and consensus.

the intouchables

“The film is about living together, about there being a French community rich in its differences and not in its exclusion,” explain Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the youthful writing/directing team behind The Intouchables. The two key actors provide it with humanity and idiosyncrasy — with the sense that Philippe and Driss might be real people rather than sociological ciphers. The film shows that Driss is “real.” That’s part of the reason the movie is such a massive international hit. Driss represents the truth, and everyone else is fake. He’s been to prison and has been evicted by his mother for indolence; she’s got too many kids at home to put up with his distractions. In the end, “The Intouchables” wants to make race an afterthought — and it’s tempting to permit it. The characters positively ooze with a charisma that is infectious.

THE INTOUCHABLES  by writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric ToledanoSlide 6

We are overwhelmed by the reaction we have received from audiences around the world to The Intouchables, and it is with great anticipation that we bring this story to America. Our film’s message transcends race, age, religion and class, and that was clearly evident by the diverse crowds that went to see it.

The Intouchables is based on the true story of a highly unlikely friendship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a white, quadriplegic millionaire, and Abdel Sellou, a young ex-con of Slide 5North-African origin, hired to be his live-in caregiver. The two men came from completely different backgrounds but learned to trust each other and develop a life-changing bond through honesty, mutual respect and subversive humor.   As filmmakers, we love having the creative freedom to transform a simple story like this one into a much larger message. It is very important to us to not only entertain but to be a part of something that starts smart conversation, and eventually leads to change. Today, it is more pertinent than ever to continue the conversations about the race and class issues in France.

Our aim was to make a feel-good film about friendship that would entertain audiences while maintaining the truth to Philippe’s and Abdel’s story. To our surprise the film has inspired an impassioned debate about one of France’s biggest social problems: socio-economic inequality between the privileged class and its marginalized neighbors, most of them having immigrant origins. An outpouring of articles, editorials, interviews and public discussions have pushed the subject into the bright glare of the media spotlight: immigrants and their direct descendants—from Morocco or Senegal, Algeria or Mali—are largely ghettoized in the projects outside of Paris with few opportunities to better their lives.

It would have been impossible to make a film this moving and entertaining without the genius of Omar Sy’s and François Cluzet’s performances. Both approached the roles as we approached making the film—with an open mind and a good sense of humor, and their chemistry off and on camera was remarkable.

We could not have predicted the overwhelming reception of The Intouchables in France. As the filmmakers of this tale of friendship, we set out to sketch an optimistic story in a realistic portrait of French society, one that combines the social and psychological gulf between French nativists and marginalized immigrants, between the upscale neighborhoods of Paris and the city’s poor suburbs. We hope you will enjoy this film with your own best friend or family.

Written and directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache; director of photography, Mathieu Vadepied; edited by Dorian Rigal-Ansous; music by Ludovico Einaudi; production design by François Emmanuelli; costumes by Isabelle Pannetier; produced by Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou and Laurent Zeitoun; released by the Weinstein Company. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.

WITH: François Cluzet (Philippe), Omar Sy (Driss), Anne Le Ny (Yvonne), Audrey Fleurot (Magalie), Clothilde Mollet (Marcelle), Alba Gaïa Bellugi (Elisa), Cyril Mendy (Adama), Christian Ameri (Albert), Marie-Laure Descoureaux (Chantal) and Gregoire Oestermann (Antoine).

YOU SAVED MY LIFE by Abdel Sellou    You Changed My Life(The Book That Inspired “The Intouchables”)        You Saved My Life tells the extraordinary true story of the charming Algerian con-man whose friendship with a disabled French aristocrat inspired the record-breaking hit film, The IntouchablesSellou’s fictional reincarnation, Driss, played to critical acclaim by French comedian Omar Sy in the movie Les Intouchables, captured the hearts of millions with his edgy charm. Already a bestseller in France and Germany, You Changed My Life shows us the real man behind Sy’s smiling face. The book takes us from his childhood spent stealing candy from the local grocery store, to his career as a pickpocket and scam artist, to his unexpected employment as a companion for a quadriplegic.

Sellou has never before divulged the details of his past.  In many interviews and documentaries, he has evaded or shrugged off the question of his childhood and his stay in prison, until now. He tells his story with a stunning amount of talent, with humor, style, and—though he denies that he has any—humility. Sellou’s idiosyncratic and candidly charming voice. Abdel Sellou now lives in Algeria with his wife and three children, where he runs a chicken farm. He remains close to Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who lives in Morocco with his second wife and two children.  

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