'Step Up to the Plate': Food and Art, Father and Son

For Michel, seeing is key. It's not only a matter of oversight, but also a matter of sensory delight.

Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras)

Director: Paul Lacoste
Cast: Michel Bras, Sébastien Bras, Véronique Bras, Ginette Bras, Olivier Roellinger, Michel Troisgros
Rated: NR
Studio: Cinema Guild
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-09-14 (Limited release)

"I like that it makes sense," says Michel Bras. "You have to get your head round it, though." He's inspecting a plate prepared by his son, Sébastien. Michel is seated, leaning toward the steel counter where the plate sits, looking over it. His son encourages him to taste it ("Food is for eating"), but his father takes his time, half-smiling. He starts rearranging the parts of the dessert, spooning sauce onto the confection. He smiles, and while Sébastien's torso remains in frame, his hand on his hip, the camera is close on Michel's face. "I'm a pain, I'm not your average customer," he concedes.

This is true. Rather, Michel Bras is a world famous chef, co-owner, with Sébastien, of Hotel Bras, a three-Michelin-star hotel-restaurant in Laguiole, France. And as you come to see in Entre les Bras (released in the US as Step Up to the Plate), the father is reluctant to retire, to hand over the business to his son. Michel isn't worried, he insists, only "concerned that this is a difficult challenge for him." He sits at a table with his wife Ginette, who agrees. "We climbed up the ladder gradually," she explains, "It's easier to go up than to remain at the top. I feel sorry for [our children]. They're up there and they need to stay there." As she speaks, the camera watches Michel, smiling and then laughing, softly, when she sums up, "He has certainly not retired yet. On paper, he has. That's about it." Here the camera pans right, to show Ginette, also smiling now. "He says it will come."

The scene in their dining room shows husband and wife in separate frames, though they sit together at the table. In this, it is much like scenes showing father and son at work, in a market, inspecting vegetables just arrived in cases ("Have you checked the Romanesco broccoli"?" "No, only the green, the yellow and the two-colored ones"), pondering the herbs for a sorrel emulsion, remembering Séba as a boy in his father's kitchen ("Vegetables used to be my main job! Brainwashing!"). If the men stand near each other, it's to peer into the same plate, to stand over a counter, their hands on their hips in precisely the same pose, to frown or raise an eyebrow in expressions that might be mirror images of one another.

The resemblances between father and son shape the film, their trust and mutual appreciations marked by echoing images. Michel learned to cook in his parents' kitchen, on their farm. So did Seba, his memory gently framed by a scene of his visit to his grandmother's kitchen, waiting patiently as she prepares toast and milk skin with chocolate, "perfect," as always. At the same time, the men note their dissimilarities, their different expectations, their evolving styles and philosophies, their efforts to refine or even transform past successes.

The men's domestic lives reflect one another as well. Ginette's allusion to their gradual ascent, their work as a couple is reiterated in an interview with Sébastien's wife Véronique, who suggests that she never imagined she'd be working alongside her husband. Photos of their wedding show her lovely white dress, his youthful smile, a perfectly composed shot of the couple in their finery, windblown out on a country road. "I don’t know if Sébastien considered other options," she says, seated in a leather chair in an immaculate home. "Wearing the chef's outfit that granny made for him, I feel he didn’t have any option." Now her young son, Alban, is wearing that same outfit.

The film suggests the course of such a life: Michel takes his grandchildren out for a play day, speeding along the farm road in a cart, the kids elated ("Full speed!). Moments later, the extended family makes their way through a wood, fishing for dinner and looking for seeds. Sébastien pauses, worries that they hold their finds properly and that they don't eat the seeds. He walks off, to the left, and his children run, booming, into bright light to the left.

Such euphoria joy is set alongside other sorts. While neither Michel nor Sébastien approaches the question of how their work and art are choices, their investments, mutual and not, are visible in every frame. The film offers comparisons repeatedly: Michel watches Sébastien perform in a Japanese karaoke bar (singing along in a separate frame, to a Beatles tune: "I need you, I need you, Michelle, ma belle"), then smiles as Séba launches into an energetic dance on stage; or again, Michel goes running through snow near the hotel, disappearing into the back of the white-white shot, followed by a sequence where Sébastien jogs alone on a country road, the winter-brown fields setting off the green tractor that passes him: he waves like a good neighbor, then stands in the middle of the road to watch as it rides away, out of frame.

As the men live different lives, they share pleasures and concerns, imagine unknowable futures. "How could I describe it?," Michel wonders, standing, so poetically, in the fading light over broad acres of cow fields. "I see two worlds colliding. I'm leaving one, a work environment... where I would share a lot with Séba. It doesn’t mean I won't be sharing anymore." He can't picture himself not working, not planning, not spending time with the cooks in the morning. "You see how careful I am with the harvesting in the morning," he tells the off-screen filmmaker. "And I see the way they do it."

For Michel, seeing is key. It's not only a matter of oversight, but also a matter of sensory delight. Before the eating, he insists, comes the "looking." Entre les Bras makes clear these pleasures, with close shots on plates, delicate arrangements of color and shape, the pleasures familiar in other recent food porn films. And Entre les Bras does something else too, in presenting this complex father and son relationship. Each lovely bit of sunlight, each gorgeously composed image, and each spotless kitchen surface, suggests their shared love of what they do, even as they contemplate what comes next.

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