“If Kechiche treats political tragedy, then, it is first by creating abundantly detailed, richly convincing comédie humaine, and nowhere is this more apparent than in what is justly considered his major achievement, La Graine et le Mulet.”
A little over a decade ago, at forty, Abdellatif Kechiche made a spectacular entrance into the cloistered world of French cinema. In 2000, La Faute à Voltaire was named best first film at the Venice Film Festival, followed by L’Esquive (2003) and La Graine et le Mulet (2007), each of which swept three French Césars for best film, direction, and original screenplay. In 2010, working with his first relatively sizeable production budget, Kechiche wrote and directed Venus Noire, a treatment of the so-called Venus Hottentot brought from South Africa, then exposed and exploited in Europe in the early years of the 19th century.
The given of Kechiche’s films is the immigrant’s indeterminate position, certainly a universal condition in these days of unending migratory flows, but one leant sharper angles in France by ugly post-colonial ironies. Philosopher Etienne Balibar remembers the maps a generation of French adults knew as children, with one color for the Hexagone, another for overseas territories and départements, and still another for the colonies: gradients of Frenchness, not unlike the absurdist color-coding of apartheid (Balibar). To this add decolonialization, with its sudden official denial of shared history and legal status to the once colonized, then layer in European Unification where, say, a citizen of France’s hereditary enemy living in Paris today can not only work but run for local office, and you have one toxic environment for many immigrants from “French” Africa and North Africa.
Kechiche’s protagonists are in but not fully of France, a hybrid status reflected in his film titles, quoting Hugo to reference Lumières philosophy in a tale of a Tunisian sans-papiers on the streets of Paris or a key moment in a Marivaux play produced by trash-talking lycéens from San Denis. At least one sense of La Graine et le Mulet is generational, the fish evoking the immigrant father, the grain or seed the children born and making their way in Sête. Venus Noire draws on a Eurocentric language of myth, at once aestheticizing and dehumanizing its African subject, or rather brutally exposed object. Yet as undetermined as the spaces and as partial the cultural identities these films examine, what marks Kechiche’s work is its sharp human particularity, its rare acuity and focused empathy. Finally, the most “political” aspect of his films — including even Venus Noire, with its nearly unbearable historico-political weight — is the trenchant close-up life they bring to individuals who otherwise, in the wider society, remain essentially invisible and inaudible.
If Kechiche treats political tragedy, then, it is first by creating abundantly detailed, richly convincing comédie humaine, and nowhere is this more apparent than in what is justly considered his major achievement, La Graine et le Mulet1 Its 147 minutes constitute, in equal measure, a draining and enthralling viewing experience, the narrative at once a loose baggy monster and a generously scrawled invitation into a precisely rendered and gratifyingly human world. Due perhaps to his experience in theater direction or his own first career acting alongside Bonnaire and Brialy, Kechiche seems to liberate performances, here that of an exceptional ensemble cast and, notably, the 18-year-old Hafsia Herzi. His script accompanies an aging Tunisian immigrant trying, improbably, to start a restaurant after a shipyard layoff. Mobile, sometimes pore-close, Kechiche’s camera shoots the squabbling affections of the divorced protagonist’s extended family or the distracted impassivity of minor city officials walking him unsteadily through paperwork.
To be sure, La Graine et le Mulet acts as political parable evoking the frustrating tensions — administrative, social, familial — of the immigrant experience, as well as the moving truth of a first generation’s sacrifice for those that follow. Yet, again, the film’s politics only emerge from what is clearly even more important to Kechiche, the rush of empathetic immersion in lived lives, for to a degree unusual in cinema La Graine et le Mulet gives off the existential tingle of real, not movie, experience. To consider it in the context of Kechiche’s other work is perhaps to recall early Scorsese, declining with an almost obsessive continuity of attention different aspects of a heart-familiar off-the-boat Little Italy, and all to the wired cinéma verité pulse of Cassavetes and Godard. Immigrant Kechiche’s first two films tail, respectively, an illegal on the mean streets of Paris and the second generation through the city’s dispiriting housing projects. After confronting the two generations in La Graine et le Mulet, he further wide-angles in the disturbing Venus Noire to the horrifying historical context of the North-South divide. Despite content throughout that is perforce disconcerting, this exceptional body of work has brought Kechiche from the margin to somewhere near the center of an inbred French cinema industry far more welcoming, in general, to cloned graduates of its two major film schools than to Tunisian laborers’ sons.
The station is “Nation,” terminus of the number six line, and, sure, we get the point. But, again, the point is not the only point in Kechiche. As a New York Times reviewer put it, La Faute à Voltaire is “not about sociology but about life . . . the film ends with a moment of perfunctory legal cruelty that stands in stark contrast to the warm sense of comradeship that has come before” (Scott). In France, Jamel may not find promised liberty or equality, but he does find fraternity, notably with a talky group of rag-tag marginals, some French, some not, all scratching out a living — a real France beyond the self-serving myths or diatribes on national identity or the statuary. This is a place where an Arab single mother names her son Kevin, and Jamel, peddling flowers, charms the thousand-yard-stare out of metro commuters with a passage from Ronsard. He sells his roses but also the idea that Ronsard is a part of his tradition too. In its context, the idea’s embodiment, not smarmy or underlined, is just another event in a narrative with the unstructured, picaresque life-feel: scenes that run a bit too long, loose waits then sudden accelerations into half-glimpses of meaning, a central character who simply disappears midway through the story, the slammed-door ending. An obsession for the film’s first reel, the question of Jamel’s illegal status vanishes completely within the film’s burgeoning humanity and empathy with a protagonist who just wants to live and may be succeeding. When it abruptly re-emerges — surrounded by three functionaries dully doing their jobs — the effect is both blind-side shock and the unregistered, anti-climactic ordinariness of daily injustice.
The surprise winner of a legion of Césars, including Best Young Actress for Sara Forestier’s Lydia, L’Esquive remains a cult favorite French kids still know by heart. Except for the unhappy ending, it’s a teen movie with the codes intact, and notably its insistence on the coexistence of parallel worlds, in the attitudinal and linguistic gear-shifting between boys and girls, between the primary universe of kids and that of adults, the street and the classroom. Kechiche, by 20 already directing at the Avignon theater festival, layers in the metafictional interplay between The Game of Love and Chance off-stage and on. While a touch obvious in linking the French Enlightenment comedy’s verbal dexterity with the teeming buzz of projects argot, the doubling deftly highlights the question of individual desire and social condition. In Marivaux’s changing-places plot, nobles facing an arranged marriage with an unknown sneakily swap roles with their servants so they can observe and evaluate their mysterious future mates. The scene rehearsed throughout the film brings together Lysette and Arlequin, the two servants masquerading as gentry and struggling comically with the unfamiliar conventions and verbal register. Nipping back and forth between strained rehearsals and the buoyant, finally oppressive street gab of Lydia and Krimo with their friends, Kechiche catches the weight of teen group pressure and the quieter signs of submerged selves just starting to try out new roles and emerge in different form.
Like all teen movies, L’Esquive is about growing up, about trying the identities we’re handed, but also the others out there we vaguely feel might be waiting for us. Identity’s a tough call for all kids, but especially so for these culturally motleyed Arlequins in la Cité des Francs-Moisons, where veils have it out with a macho culture of sexual domination, and real opportunity and class mobility are mostly a TV-glimpsed dream. As Marivaux’s characters discover, restrictive social positioning and gender roles show through a change of clothes. In another of the brilliant jobs Kechiche gets from his actors, Carole Franck’s lycée prof, bone-worn but still believing in literature and kids, underlines the play’s theme: rich and poor may change roles but the rich fall in love with the rich, the poor with the poor; there is no hasard and, conditioned, we never escape our social condition. Yet later she effectively offers a counter-truth, urging Krimo to slip the peer pressure of his local language and manners, and reach out toward another self or selves. The boy’s inarticulate inwardness masks a moving desire to do just that, as he plasters the walls of his tiny room with drawings of boats and sails sent by his father in prison. In his own cell, Krimo dreams of the freeing lift of wind. Playing a socially determined part on a grimy concrete stage, he aches mutely for the airy gaiety and confident openness of a Lydia centered enough to lightly try on those other roles from which a new and suppler adult self may emerge.
Seven years later in Venus Noire Kechiche is very clearly returning to questions of representation and identity, even if the disturbing result can feel in many ways like the work of an entirely different director. Courageous, exceptionally grueling, the film cleaves to the crushing historical record of the Khoisan tribeswoman Saartjie Baartman sensationally exploited in early 19th-century Europe by her Dutch “owner”/impresario Hendrick Caezar. The opening scene is beyond distasteful, as a cultivated assembly of white males in the Académie Royale de Médicine inspects the life-size, realistically illustrated plaster mold of the black woman’s body, their putatively scientific gaze probing the abundant buttocks and voluminous labia. The flashback structure then follows the Venus Hottentot’s seven-year “career” as sideshow exhibition, offered object of desire in the salons libertins of Premier Empire Paris, and finally doped-up prostitute. Even dead of venereal infection, she remains profitable merchandise to be peddled to science for study and, like any lab animal, dissection.
The critical firestorm Venus Noire ignited — the film was booed in Venice and savaged by certain critics — was due in part to a filmic strategy that clearly seems aimed at eliciting viewer discomfort. The jumpy human warmth of Kechiche’s camera elsewhere is chilled here to a creepy, clinical voyeurism. The opening scene sets in place an odious pattern of representation and spectatorship to be reiterated ad nauseam with versions of the same endlessly repeated carnival spectacle: responding to the baited promptings of the audience, the handler opens an on-stage cage to release the bumping, grinding, snarling erotic menace who, leashed, will finally be groped by the paying audience. Escalated to increasingly extreme forms of sexual objectification as a plaything for the decadent aristocracy and then overtly as a prostitute, that interface of violation between the viewed object and the viewer is Kechiche’s subject, with the paying audience of Venus Noire placed in troublingly complicit parallel to those of the Venus Noire. The implication that all share guilt for the historical obscenities attending race, gender, and class is wearingly apparent, the more so in that the relationship between Saartjie and the shady Caezar so eerily parodies the ugly ambiguities of interest central to the colonial project. In part the young woman buys into the manipulative narrative of European fame and social ascension spun for her; disempowered yet touching in the joy she takes off-stage in acting the fine lady, she is strangely party to her own abject exploitation.
Kechiche’s film shares much with Elephant Man in its reflection on the violence of spectacle in the then-emerging modern world (and, more largely, of all relations hinged on power), but also in its deep human sympathy for the victim. To the anatomist’s clinical voiceover about the specimen’s resemblance to the chimpanzee, the initial scene concludes with a slow pan up the ample plaster cast of Saartjie’s body, from the brutally exposed private parts to, rendered with affectionate particularity, the saddest of human faces. That we are viewing the viewing of a representation of an object of representation has for paradoxical effect the erasure of those distinctions and the empathetic centering of focus upon a real woman naked and alone in the most unthinkable of circumstances. Throughout the film, during the obsessively repeated, nearly unwatchable performance scenes, the camera will similarly surprise with a second or two of hesitation on the poignant features of Yahima Torres, whose imagined ordeal as an actress exposed in these brutal scenes one cannot help but layer onto that of the historical Saartjie. This same sense of double exposure returns in the film’s mostly silent credits, which chillingly frame the historical and the more accessibly modern within TV news footage of the repatriation of that real woman’s real body from the archives of the Musée de l’Homme, where the infamous cast was exposed until, mind-blowingly, 1974.
The first of Kechiche’s films alludes to Enlightenment Europe through its title, the second through a central plot element, and the fourth through its evocation of the vast awakening of modern scientific and medical thinking in Lavoisier’s 18th century. While perhaps surprising for an artist preoccupied with contemporary immigration, such coherence in fact suggests a central tension running through Kechiche’s work. To recall the great century of revolution and rationality, of a social contract and a universal declaration of human rights, is to recall the immense promise of Western civilization — but to do that is also to recall its breach. In other words, the Enlightenment is that point where Voltaire starts looking toward the bright freeing of human potential, but also where an elegant savant will display to prim gasps an African woman’s exposed pubis. It is a place where for too many a modern guarantee of individual dignity would slouch to the colonies to be still-born.
Plotless is not exactly the word, for a protagonist and central conflict do loosely organize the in media res shapelessness of La Graine et le Mulet. But the overall effect is certainly one of life’s profuse jumble, like that in a great communal platter of the signature North African couscous to which the title refers. Steeping and stirring loyalty, jealousy, family history, frustration, resistance, the two and a half hours of film offer not a slice of life but a copious spread, and it is appropriate that two utterly memorable feasts — one mouthwateringly successful, the other a botched frustration — pace and direct the film’s meaning. In these scenes of marvelously vital interaction, Kechiche’s mobile camera registers performances from actors that stun by their seeming lack of artifice, and rhythms one can only perceive as natural and unrehearsed. The impression, again, is not of the planned and orchestrated, or even of the masterfully executed, but rather of the “accidentally recorded.” Yet in a fascinating interview, Kechiche reveals that the buzz of spontaneous extemporaneity his films project is in fact the residue of endless preparation (Kechiche-Rinaldi). He chooses to take on unknown or first-time actors, he says, primarily because, not yet launched into the regularly scheduled projects of a career plan, they’re free to work for what can be the months necessary to discover their voices and inhabit fully their characters. Sara Forestier of L’Esquive and Hafsia Herzi of La Graine et le Mulet had virtually no professional experience of any kind before walking off with their acting awards.
Slimane’s relative marginality within his own story is part of its meaning, for, as Kechiche makes clear throughout his work, half-existence is the immigrant experience. Even within his circle, he remains close to its circumference, his regular gift of fish market leftovers accepted with near irritation, lectured to by sons who think he’d be happier back in Tunisia, gossip fodder for head-shaking friends, helpless without a stepdaughter a third his age. Yet the image of so many other invisible men from elsewhere, he is also very clearly a heroic figure to Kechiche: from elsewhere but no less “French . . . a man who’s given much to France, who has created a family, who’s labored to build something, who’s killing himself with fatigue but who continues to work” (Kechiche-Rinaldi). Balanced between Rym’s enterprising dance and Slimane’s weary isolation, her exuberant music overlaying the visual dirge of the black screen and closing dedication, the film ends in tragedy that is somehow appropriately inconclusive — and consistent within a body of work honoring at once the weightier tragic theater of Voltaire and the comic lift of Marivaux. Finally, when the critic considers the adjective tragicomic for La Graine et le Mulet, he may not be far off. For, transposing the vital movement of youth upon an old man’s exhausted immobility, Kechiche suggests the hopeful enabling of a younger generation’s potential in the painful sacrifice of the older, the spent mulet yet also the hopeful graine. Beyond local usage for a wide variety of fish, the word mulet furthermore plays on the French homonym for mule, not insignificantly a hybrid species as well as an image for that earlier generation’s stubborn persistence in preparing resistant French soil for new, transplanted growth.
As nuanced a viewing experience as La Graine et le Mulet is, its generational truth nevertheless turns on the image of the father as an almost literally selfless martyr. In that De Sica-inspired closing scene of frustrated pursuit, the cackling boys spurting ahead on the stolen bike, he continues. Marked by a dogged, emaciated impassivity bordering on blankness, chose-ups of Slimane’s careworn features alternate with wide-angles of the individual-dwarfing housing projects theater of his despair — and then with the reason for his nevertheless unbending efforts: the desperate promise of a Rym who will, somehow, make it work. Kechiche hints that the new generation she represents may eventually — but he is very clear about the sacrifice of the father and his, the first, immigrant generation. Here we might turn again to the film’s title. Kechiche said that the title referred simply to the couscous that represents North African cultures, providing an occasion for communication and a source of human warmth. Beyond this, there is “no metaphor,” he says in an interview with Léa Rinaldi, and he meant nothing else by the title. All right, but Virginia Woolf also said she meant nothing by the lighthouse. The breakdown of the emblematic dish into its component parts and the singular definite article lend a haunting, fabular resonance to the title. The felt significance as a marker for the warmth of North African culture is certainly clear, and important in a film largely about offered — and denied — hospitality. Again, so too is the surf and turf contrast in the title, with its evident play on mobility and searching roots, the new generation drawing from a father who has crossed the water to be permitted, or not, to dock at the significantly named Quai de la République. For Slimane’s generation, that place is clearly not available. Kechiche suggests this sad response throughout his work, here confirming with the long, closely paralleled concluding scenes: the public dinner sequence on the refurbished ship, participants and viewers increasingly uncomfortable as the main course fails to arrive, and the frail patriarch’s search for a solution and final descent into absurd futility. With its more than faint echo of Biblical loaves and fishes, here not multiplied but subtracted, the title further contributes to the tension between the promise of abundance and a reality of privation.
Such recurrence may be rooted in autobiography, and it certainly reflects modern social realities, but what is more important is the way it tonally accompanies Kechiche’s reading of immigrant life. Among other things, in his frequent evocation of vulnerable or failed relationships, Kechiche represents a complex, highly personal play between ardently hoped-for connection and crushing disappointment, once again the two poles of the new arrival’s existence. In La Graine et le Mulet, Slimane Beiji is neither in nor out of his extended family, neither with nor without his girlfriend, and, of course, neither fully foreign nor fully French. It’s not far off to see the prospective celebration (that will become the torturously drawn-out closing dinner scene) as a kind of wedding feast planned by the earnest, hopeful, spiffed-up groom who, after a long, assiduous courtship, seems to have secured the consent of the desirable yet so moody Marianne of the République. But at Slimane’s feast, promised loaves and fishes are immediately withdrawn, and there is no one to turn water to wine when, early in the special evening, the stock runs out. If there is a miracle, it is of the earthiest sort as Slimane’s stepdaughter Rym lowers her skirt, hikes up her top, and embarks on a weird, passionate belly dance. In this way she at least temporarily distracts the restive guests to furnish some remnant of hope as, in emotional split-screen, her stepfather stumbles along on his doomed mission. Before the screen falls dark, the closing image is of the old man near collapse, but the North African tonalities of Rym’s fertile music persist like a tympanic echo.
Kechiche thus leaves the film at a point of suspension just this side of utter tragedy. For while his subject is the sacrifice of the father and his generation, it is also the children of their broken families. His second film was about that new generation. If there is a lesson to be drawn from Lydia’s story, it is that a certain attitude and set of skills may be needed if that new graine is to flourish in French soil. L’Esquive of the title refers to an act of subtle tactical evasion, in the film literally the young girl’s tactful avoidance of an unwanted suitor’s embrace. More largely it suggests the reactive on-the-toes alertness and confident flexibility of character that mark the young girl who, we sense, is advancing toward a brighter future when she turns the corner and disappears in the film’s last frames. Equally at ease raising her hand in French class, enunciating Marivaux on stage, or verlans trash-talking on the street corner, Lydia wears her period dress through long stretches of the film. Not only do you have to be pretty cool to pull that off in these dispiriting housing projects, but the costume further represents an alternate self, one of many, to be worn proudly and then nimbly changed when necessary. For children of immigrant families, such ease with multiple identities is a vital skill, and in this the admirable Rym is Lydia’s cinematic cousin. Kechiche epitomizes this in what Film Comment rightfully calls a “marvellous scene” of transformation when, arriving at the municipal offices with her stepfather for an interview, she slips out of tattered coveralls in an instant to reveal under them the sharply pressed suit of what could be any young executive businesswoman (Lequeret).
Balibar, Etienne (28 April 2011), “La condition d’étranger se définit moins par le passeport que par le statut précaire,” Telerama.
Ebert, Roger (21 January 2009), “The Secret of the Grain,” rogerebert.com.
Kechiche, Abdellatif (29 September 2007), “ITW Abdellatif Kechiche, La graine et le mulet, Léa Rinaldi,” video interview with Léa Rinaldi, YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFkJPKebOok.
Kechiche, Abdellatif (10 December 2007), “La Graine et le Mulet: l’interview d’Abdellatif Kechiche,”Première.
Lequeret, Elisabeth (2007), “The Secret of the Grain Review,” filmcomment.com.
Morris, Wesley (20 February 2009), “The Secret of the Grain: Secret is a Feast of a Family Epic,” boston.com.
Scott, A. O. (23 December 2008), “Humble Souls, Richly Nourished,” New York Times.
- La Graine et le Mulet roughly translates as “The Grain (or Seed) and the Fish.” In French the double sense of graine is clearer than in English. More than simply mullet, mulet is used in Southern France for a number of commonly caught fish species. The English title of the film was Couscous, the American title The Secret of the Grain. [↩]