Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros (2023) dir. Frederick Wiseman

Yes, Wiseman!


On paper, Frederick Wiseman’s unbreaking cinema vérité might be one of the last things I’d run to see, but the convert in me is willing to stand next to the Freedom Trail at Park St and recommend City Hall to passing tourists. The 2020 documentary about our beloved Beantown excels in steady audience stimulation for over four hours without the use of interrupting devices, like testimonies or voiceover explanations, that are generally used to propel a narrative. Wiseman’s latest, Menus-PlaisirsLes Troisgros, is of the same species as City Hall, which should strike as fortunate for returning visitors. Following the operations of a three-star Michelin restaurant, which is now run by the fourth generation of the Troisgros family after almost a century (93 years!) in service, Wiseman once again nails the momentum of active observation just by placing a camera in front of life unfolding.

The Troisgros family business, which embodies three restaurants and a hotel in central France, is headed by patriarch Michel, his wife, and his adult children — namely Léo and César, who are head chefs. While City Hall is themed around various municipal activities around Boston, each scene has a set of characters that hold their own ecosystem that never feel jarring or boring, even when etiquette and language differ. In Menus-Plaisirs, the scenes are more tightly bound to a definite concept as they all participate in the Troisgros restaurant and hospitality enterprise. You also find that time exists somewhat linearly, as the documentary suggests that a sequential lunch and dinner service is taking place, with prep work and field research in between.

I enjoy movies about the restaurant because the culture can be methodical or chaotic, professional or tyrannical — all of which can and has unfortunately become synonymous with each other. Wiseman mainly steers clear of political or personal interjection from his perspective, but you can see the level of care, intelligence, and creativity that comes from the staff. There are a lot of conversations about where the ingredients are sourced from and how allergies are taken care of. We spend time learning about the carbon impact of plowed lands and how to prime tomato growth through temperature manipulation in the soil. I suppose top-tier foodies and restaurateurs might hold a deeper understanding and appreciation for certain practices, but it hasn’t stopped me from agreeing, “Of course you’d replace the pigeon with salmon!” That’s the vibe; it’s akin to a great museum exhibit, where you feel what you extract.

You may or may not spend a lot of time reflecting on your knife skills or the ability to think on your feet or hold composure. Your thoughts might also veer into skepticism; who are these people when they’re not being filmed? There is no doubt that Wiseman has come across this question longer and more frequently than I could even think about, and I believe that the absence of the restaurant’s prestige — in the sense that this could have been filmed at a restaurant in the South End and not feel wholly different — gives greater focus and attraction to the mundane, which feels more authentic to witness. Nevertheless, there are moments that could only be genuine. One scene has a chef in front of a stove attending to his pans before he realizes that he forgot to cook the snails (operationally, “cook” is a rudimentary term for the multiple steps that he needs to do to prepare them). The chef says nothing, but his quick glance to the camera followed by the familiar franticness of jerky door-closing and quick-second limb extensions can let us presume that we’ve encountered an issue.

Questions will form in your head, and some of them will be answered later. In the beginning, two men are having a rather teeth-pulling conversation about how almond is incorporated into a sauce, until one of them addresses them as Dad (they are later revealed to be the Troisgros men). Soy sauce makes a few surprising appearances in the R&D conversations of a decidedly French menu, until we find out that Léo has worked in Tokyo for ten months two hours later (and upon further research, the Troisgros family has had ties with Japan since the ’60s). There are stand-out moments that fit into a situational crisis-resolution format, but I personally like the scenes that are just pleasing to watch, like someone pouring liquid chocolate into a perfect circular puddle or how fried red lettuce can look extraterrestrial. I also love the dream that I can retain this information, like how it’s important to remove blood vessels from the veal brain before the blood coagulates, but that if I didn’t remember how to do that, I can refer to the Escoffier cookbook or the Larousse encyclopedia on what to do next. Watching Menus-Plaisirs can be a fun conversation with yourself (or more blasphemously, with others) as you weave into the inner workings of the restaurant.

This idea, I feel, would be something that Michel would be proud of. Hospitality is part of the game, but there are many times where the film shows Michel having casual conversations with first-time and returning customers at their table. The last scene of the film is the most exposition we get, and it’s Michel explaining how the restaurant came to be in a tableside chat. Given that this is how Wiseman first became acquainted with the family when he visited Troisgros in 2020, it’s an enchanting conclusion.

To place this in a larger context for a second, there are 29 restaurants in France that have three Michelin stars. 22 of them had hit their status after the turn of the century. By 2023, Troisgros has met the record of holding its three Michelin stars and could surpass L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges’ record (whose controversial demotion in 2020 concluded its 55-year run). None of this is mentioned in the four hours about this restaurant, which is Wiseman’s wizardry of letting things speak for themselves. After the film, who knows who you’ll be? Will you become a lobbyist for sulfite content on wine bottle labels? What will you do knowing that reseeding is the process of rubbing one cheese among the rest of other cheeses? Will you turn to white asparagus in future grocery runs? Or can you hold fries in your hands, knowing exactly what content is? There is no right way of responding, but there is only one way of knowing.

Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros
dir. Frederick Wiseman
240 mins

Opens Friday, 2/9 exclusively @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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