“Cuisine is for people who aren’t hungry,” said my wife as we watched Entre les Bras. Indeed, this French film, part of the “Eat the Screen” series at the Doris Duke Theatre, starts with a highly decorative but hardly appetizing time-lapse construction of the weirdest salad I’ve ever seen. Leaf by leaf, flower by flower, a hand adds each item and recites its name: names obscure maybe even to foodies (but not the French, who are not foodies and abhor the term).
With that colorful wreath of a salad as opening montage, Step Up to the Plate, as it is titled in this country–the unfortunate baseball pun not terribly apropos–would seemingly take us off into the fanciful world of imperious chefs turning out twee and precious dishes that can make a grown man cry. A film about abstract food, then–so we settled in thinking–quickly slowed and deconstructed itself like the aforementioned salad. Plot and pace took a backseat to mood and composition: of scene, of dishes.
What Entre les Bras is, a succession drama, is itself composed in a way that gives our brains a lively workout. Michel Bras is voluntarily retiring from his famous, isolated, austere restaurant in the Mid-Pyrenees. In a King Lear-like decision, he is going to hand over the reins to his son Sebastian, who has worked beside him for 15 years–although, to judge from photos of Seba in a chef’s white coat and toque at age 7, this has been a lifelong apprenticeship. Michel Bras doesn’t need to retire. He’s still young, vigorous, his passion so great that he admits that if he stopped going into the markets in the morning he would die.
Why, then, is he doing this? The answer is a piece of wisdom we all could heed: He wants Seba to be his own man, and to accomplish this recognizes that he must step down. Furthermore, in an idea the film develops in discussion with other chefs and neighbors in the region, the only way for this to happen is that Seba must not preserve his father’s legacy. He has to take it apart and put it back together, like the salad, from the basics, formed this time by his own taste and vision.
The result is the opposite, cinematically, from the food porn/food warrior approach we see so much of on television. It is also, in a subplot around a trip to Japan, the opposite of a grim, life-or-death preservation ethos–especially that which has grown up around that country’s 100-year-old noodle shops and restaurants. (See: Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) Bras père et fils enjoy their trip to Japan (karaoke is international) and respect what they find. But you sense that they can’t wait to get home.
And what is home? The lush fantasy of the Tourenne or the sunstruck glory of Provence? No, the Mid-Pyrenees is a hilly, sparsely cultivated landscape that could be Nebraska. And how they love it. Back home again, we follow the father and son and their very involved families, wives, children, grandparents, as they wrestle with a single dish that Sebastian is inventing. The farther along into abstraction he goes, the more the story delves into his roots, his father Michel’s life, and Michel’s parents.
As we follow this remarkable family and their transition from traditional home cookery to haute cuisine with two Michelin stars in the middle of nowhere, the film effects a much-needed appreciation of cuisine as a kind of genealogy of taste, not as a succession of publicity stunts. Local restauranteurs, take heed.