Director: Abdel Kechiche
Screenplay: Abdel Kechiche
Though born in Tunisia in 1960, writer-director-actor Abdel Kechiche immigrated with his family to France in 1966, setting up residence in Nice. Kechiche made his debut as an actor in 1984 and it wasn’t until 2000, at the age of 40 and after numerous acting roles, that he followed his desire to direct. His first feature film, La faute à Voltaire (Blame it on Voltaire), did well at several European film festivals, receiving a total of seven awards, including the CinemAvvenire and Luigi De Laurentiis awards at the 2000 Venice Film Festival. La graine et le mulet marks his third directorial effort and is undoubtedly his most critically acclaimed work to date.
In La graine et le mulet, newcomer Habib Boufares plays Slimane Beiji, a sixty-one-year-old dockhand who finds himself laid off after 35 years of service. With two families to support and very little money to speak of, Slimane decides to open his own restaurant – an old ship transformed into a floating dining experience in which his ex-wife’s (Bouraouïa Marzouk) legendary fish couscous is served. Opening a restaurant proves to be no simple task and as Slimane’s pockets do not run very deep, he is forced to apply for a loan and create business proposals which are all very much out of his realm of experience. Fortunately for him, he’s both encouraged and aided by Rym (Hafsia Herzi), his daughter from his current relationship.
Undoubtedly, Kechiche’s greatest accomplishment with La graine et le mulet is the manner by which he allows his characters the onscreen room that they need to breathe. Scenes are somewhat lengthy, allowing for the characters to reveal their personalities in a natural and uncompromising manner. This is especially beneficial given the fact that most of the actors in the film are untrained, first time actors. There’s a very genuine, almost documentarian feel to all of this. As a result, the moments when the family are arguing feel awkward to watch, as if we the audience are intruding on one private family matter after another.
La graine et le mulet‘s central story isn’t particularly fascinating, but it works solely because of the personal manner in which we’re drawn into the affairs of Slimane and his family. In addition to this, the performances of Habib Boufares and Hafsia Herzi are particularly powerful, though they both play on opposite ends of the scale. Boufares is capable of saying everything with a single morose glance, making him a pitiable and empathetic character all at once. Herzi is outright explosive as Rym, a young woman filled with pride and unwavering determination and devotion. The relationship between her and her father Slimane, as well as how she interacts with her half-brothers and sisters is simply mesmerizing to watch.
As the family dynamic intensifies throughout the film, Kechiche keeps his focus on Slimane. This is the family that he’s built and these are the sacrifices that he’s made. Everyone it seems, is talking about Slimane, whether to his face or behind his back, and he weathers it all with an unwavering mixture of calm and helplessness. It’s the film’s third act that really devours the heart, amounting to 50 minutes of what I can only describe as heartbreaking cinema. It’s honestly been quite a while since a film moved me in the way that La graine et le mulet did. This is not an uplifting film, but it is a wonderfully orchestrated look into the complexities, the help and the outright hinderance of family life.