Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 23, 2012 7:51 am 
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[I posted a preview of this review during the April SFIFF.]


Tradition and creativity in French cuisine

This translation is a nice pun that you couldn't make in French. The original title of this austere, impressive documentary about tradition and creativity in a French regional restaurant, which opened in Paris March 14, 2012, is Entre Les Bras - La cuisine en héritage, but it's a pun too, because "entre les bras" is like "within reach" or "pass off," but the family of great chefs, father Michel and son Sébastien, is Bras, so the action here is all "among the Bras." The film begins in 2009, when Michel Bras decides to pass on the reins to Sébastien. Michel is a famous French chef. His restaurant in Laguiole, deep in the semi-mountainous Aubrac region of the Hautes-Pyranées in southwest France, has won many awards including Michelin three stars, one of 106 in the world, and 26 in France, to have this honor. The film doesn't tell us any of this; there is no narration or fuss about fame. In the second scene we see Michel create Le Gargouillou, his most famous dish, which is like a painting, revealing his mixture of freshness and complexity, and his incredible knowledge of the local flora and herbs. Later Sébastien will create his own dish, and his father will critique it, multiple times. At the end, Sébastien will cast it aside, and break it down, and we see him, having officially more or less taken over the mantle from his father, presenting three dishes in sequence at the Palais Royal in Paris. They run from savory to sweet. It's like a final exam, that he passes summa cum laude.

The film is restrained but sure, handheld, mostly without music, fly-on-the-wall, or often fly-in-the-face, because it closeups on the two men. They are both fit, runners. No smoking or pot belly for them. They are rather alike, both in their lean, craggy faces and in their agelessness. Michel has all his hair, and it's only partly gray. Sébastien is no longer young, but of indeterminate age. Later we meet their father and mother, who ran a restaurant too; Michel began following around in the kitchen, as did Sébastien. Their grandfather was a farmer in the region. The farm is still active. Alban, Sébastien's young son, already works in the kitchen as the father and grandfather did. So we begin to realize why some of the world's greatest restaurants are in far-off parts of France: because their proprietors are deeply rooted in the regions and their cuisine is a flower of the land. Step Up to the Plate could be called Handing Off the Baton. Michel is still running, literally. He is not leaving. He continues to work, closely involved in selecting food at the market each week. "If I stop doing that," he says, "I will be dead." "Their carelessness in making selections," he begins, referring vaguely to his successors, and then he stops and seems to begin to cry.

Lacoste balances his portrait of the family nicely with his study of the restaurant (restaurants, since we glimpse the one in Japan), and he has excellent access, having filmed Michel ten years earlier for a series about the great French chefs, Inventing Cuisine. And his organizing his story over a year's time following the seasons highlights the austere beauty of the region, its variety, and the mixture of gemutlichkeit and stony determination of the two chefs. They are really pretty uptight, but look at the beauty of what they make. We glance at Michel's sketches and his big stack of notebooks and we realize these are not only culinary artists, but conceive their dishes visually as much as they compose them with unimaginably refined, specific ingredients.

There isn't much about the details of the kitchen as a whole, but the staff is all around, and I like Michel's admonitions. To the serving staff, he warns them to know all the tastes and ingredients of the dishes on the menu and says he can "get mean" with waiters who err. "But this is only to know if someone asks," he says. He warns them not to harangue customers with needless details about what they bring to the table. "The dish will get cold," he says. "All they need to know is on the menu description. We tell them the rest with what is on the plate." To newcomers to the kitchen staff he says, "If you have any doubts, ask. This an open kitchen. Never wall yourself off in your little section. Everyone communicates with everyone else."

When Sébastien makes that presentation at the Palais Royal of the three dishes, partly developed from the overly complex earlier one, we find that he has found himself by returning to the fondest gustatory memories of his youth, the local Laguiole cheese, blackberry jam, chocolate, his mother's tartines (open sandwiches), warm frothy raw milk fresh from the cow's teats in the evening at his grandfather's farm. And so he is using the fine craft and methods of composition and presentation he learned at his father's side, but he is becoming himself. He pays homage to his father and also to his mother and grandmother.

We do not learn how to prepare dishes or what they taste like from this film. That is not the point. It's about excellence and tradition in the French sense. As Sébastien says, in Japanese restaurants passed along several generations, the aim is to recreate exactly the same dishes. Without his saying it we know that he cannot do that. There is a tenderness in the rivalry and competition of the two men that is Lacoste's ultimate topic, and is very touching. An excellent film that, like its subjects, works from the finest raw materials.

Entre les Bras debuted at the Berlin festival and after opening in Paris March 14, it received a moderately favorable Allociné rating of 3.2 based on 14 reviews in the French Press. Screened for this review as part of the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival where it was included in the documentary competition. It was released in the US (NYC) September 14, 2012 (Metacritic rating: 71). For foodies, highly recommended, and an elegantly executed documentary film.


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