French cinema's current renaissance continues with The Secret of the Grain, a remarkable new film by writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche (2003's Games of Love and Chance). Since both Grain and Chance swept the French Oscars, you could say Kechiche is batting a thousand these days. Novelistic in scope and densely textured, Keciche's latest humanist triumph tells the story of Tunisian immigrant Slimane (Habib Bufares), a veteran shipyard worker in the tiny port town of Sète off the Mediterranean coast. Slimane's large, extended family — his ex-wife Souad and their various children and grandkids — competes for his attention with landlord/lover Latifa and her comely young daughter Rym. That (most) everyone gets along is a testament to Slimane's genuine good nature and persistence.
Slimane's decision to open a couscous restaurant after getting laid off down at the yard would be the dramatic turning point in an ordinary movie. But Kechiche is more interested in narrative digressions, character detail and extended dinner-table conversations. Instead of building to a crescendo, Kechiche instead plays a series of jazzy riffs that are perfectly modulated, always in tune and wonderfully seductive.
The improvisatory, loosely structured filmmaking style and obvious affection for society's underclass feels like a playful French variant on Mike Leigh's working-class dramedies (High Hopes, Life is Sweet, et al.). The naturalistic performances are as seemingly effortless as Keciche's bustling mise-en-scene. Hafsia Herzi's Cesar-winning performance as Rym is a standout, and the superb cinematography by Lubomir Bakchev (who also shot Games of Love and Chance) lends the proceedings an appealing, quasi-verité flavor.