Ah, when bad titles happen to fine movies. Were I to release a documentary about the gastronomical ingenuity of Michel and Sébastian Bras, I’d like to think I’d call it anything but “Step Up to the Plate,” because all most North Americans will think when they see that title is baseball. In French, the movie is called “Entre les Bras” — “Between the Brases” — and that really gets at the essence of the movie (although I concede that some people will see the original title and think undergarments). Anyway, the movie patiently watches as Michel attempts to retire from Bras, the chic family restaurant in the southern hamlet of Laguiole, France, that he’s placing in the hands of his son Sébastian. The movie’s patient in the way of “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” or “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” That’s where culinary nonfiction is now — sleepy, observant. And, for the most part, that’s OK.
Here that sleepiness has a kind of whimsy. It can be like a dream. The second shot alone makes the ensuing 80 or so minutes even more enjoyable. It’s simple. The camera hovers above a dish that, courtesy of a succession of gentle cuts, gradually fills with ingredients. It continues long enough to go from being cute (oh, look, the movie’s building a salad) to inspire research into how fast you can get to Laguiole for a plate of roses, poppies, little potatoes, “bear’s garlic,” and about 20 other ingredients. “Salad” sounds too pedestrian for what’s layered in the bowl. “Garden” is better. Yes, I’ll have one garden, please.
The Brases do that thing to food that I thought had fallen out of fashion — the slashes and dabs of purées and sauces and compotes. But the more time you spend in the company of Michel’s wistfulness and Sébastian’s placid perfectionism, the more you’re embarrassed to hold fashion against them. Besides, right now the nine-course dinner at Bras will set you back almost $250 US; you can handle delicious dabs and slashes. For Sébastian, it’s a kind of expressionism.
Director Paul Lacoste is there for choice moments, like the Bras family foraging the woods for ingredients and, later, some father-son undermining. Sébastian devises desserts with studious precision (he spends time at Bras’s 10-year-old branch in Hokkaido, Japan) and when he invites Michel to sample one with mochi, the father takes a bite and has this to say: “It’s tasty. I didn’t expect that.” He could say the same about this movie.