There’s a lot of talk about the fish couscous that the matriarch (Marzouk) of Abdel Kechiche’s drama makes for her family. (Actually, there’s constant chatter about everything; anyone who caught 2003’s L’Esquive knows that this director loves torrential verbiage.) Her extended French-Tunisian brood—sons, daughters, their spouses and kids—discusses the specifics of Mom’s signature dish at length. Even the local musicians use the meal to judge the cooking prowess of every female in town. It’s so renowned that her estranged husband (Boufares) wants to convert a rusted ship into a restaurant so he can sell the speciality. With his girlfriend’s teen daughter (Herzi) in tow, the gent attempts to get this business up and running.
The fact that this narrative catalyst doesn’t reveal itself until an hour into the film tells you where the director’s priorities lie. He’s far more interested in observing these people interact, and the movie’s loose structure—a 20-minute time-out for a massive dinner isn’t considered tangential—turns this ensemble piece into something more than a savory family drama. Whether or not the restaurant opens is beside the point; it’s Kechiche’s living, breathing portrait of a second-generation immigrant culture that’s The Secret of the Grain’s real success story.