Frederick Wiseman’s new film, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, a four-hour documentary on the Troisgros family and their three restaurants located in central France, primarily focuses on the three-Michelin-starred La Maison Troisgros. Menus-Plaisirs translates to “small pleasures,” and the film details much of the hard work it takes to create the many found at the Troisgros family restaurants.
This is Wiseman’s sixth feature made in France, the country he now calls home. Not only does Menus-Plaisirs fit within that subcategory, but the filmmaker also clearly approaches the subject as an institution practicing or exhibiting art on the same plane as National Gallery, La Comedie-Francaise, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym, and Ballet.
Bridging all subcategorization of Wiseman’s work, at least since the mid-90s, has been an arc exhibiting the slow decline of resources for the arts, public spaces, small-business opportunities, and handmade goods in favor of capitalism’s industrial streamlining of contemporary life. Within that arc, Menus-Plaisirs feels like the filmmaker finding a small pocket of reprieve, as though he’s very pleased to have found a place that thrives on personalization and handcrafted collaboration.
Ahead of the documentary beginning its theatrical release at NYC’s Film Forum this week, we talked with Wiseman about the film’s origins, its resonances with his larger body of work, and the artistry of cooking and how it does and does not relate to filmmaking.
The Film Stage: I believe you shot Menus-Plaisirs in May ‘22. How long was the edit?
Frederick Wiseman: It was shot in April and May––seven weeks in 2022. And the edit was 10 months.
How many hours did you shoot?
I have an archival question. You leave hundreds of hours of film on the cutting-room floor each time you make a movie. What do you do with that archival footage? Is there a plan to loan it or endow it to the Library of Congress or something? Because it’s a valuable archive.
Yeah, the Library of Congress has close to nine million feet of rushes.
This is the first film you’ve made without cinematographer John Davey since Sinai Field Mission in ‘78 due to some scheduling conflicts.
He had some family problems.
Davey told me that not being able to be a part of the film was one of the biggest dilemmas in his life, and he described the decision of making the film without him as traumatic for the both of you. Can you talk about the decision and what it was like from your perspective?
[Laughs] Well, we are accustomed to working together. When did you talk to him?
I think it was in July or August… sometime this summer.
Yeah, John and I have worked together for a long time and we will work together again.
You have described you and Davey’s working relationship as akin to a dance partnership, working via physical communication to get the material you need. What was it like having a new dance partner in James Bishop?
Jim was the camera assistant on everything since State Legislature, so he knew the system. It was an easy transition.
Have you had this specific restaurant on your list for a while?
No, it was sheer chance. I was staying at friend’s house in Burgundy to escape Paris during the height of COVID in 2020 and I wanted to take my friends out to a good restaurant to thank them for taking good care of me for a month. And La Maison Troisgros, which is a three-star Michelin restaurant, is not far from where they live. I made a reservation for lunch. After lunch, Cesar Troisgros came out to work the room and came to our table. And without planning to do so in advance, I sort of blurted out, “I make documentary films. Would you ever consider having a film made about your restaurant?” He said, “Let me ask my father” and came back out about a half-hour later and said, “Why not!” Then we exchanged some letters and I came back for a visit.
When I showed the family the film in 2023, we were discussing the origins of making the film. Cesar told me that his father, Michel, wasn’t there that day in 2020, but he looked me up on Wikipedia and he liked what he read.
That’s the origin of the film. Like so many other things in my life: sheer chance.
So was a restaurant on your list of films to make, generally speaking?
A restaurant was on the list, yes. It was always something that I wanted to do but I never asked anybody about it before.
You say the shooting is the research. While making this film, what was one of the simple takeaways that has stuck with you––something you didn’t know or think about fine dining before the film that took you by surprise?
I didn’t realize the artistry that was involved. Both in the creation of the dishes and in their presentation.
Watching the process of something being made, like we get to see in this film, is a big staple of your work. And particularly the human and machine conveyor belt process pops up a lot––like in Meat, Ex Libris, or Belfast, Maine. Here we get to see humans work together, both mentally and physically. Was that cooperative, handcrafted process something that you discovered? You didn’t go into the making of the film interested in that?
I had never been in a kitchen of a three-star Michelin restaurant before I was in the kitchen at La Maison Troisgros. I just knew the food was good, but I didn’t know anything about the process.
The kitchen has a clear top-down hierarchy––the same type of hierarchy that we see in films of yours like Ballet or Near Death––but it’s also very collaborative within that hierarchy. Does your interest in collaboration come from the somewhat ironic perspective of someone who largely works in isolation, editing for months on end by yourself?
I don’t know where it comes from, but what you describe as my editorial process is correct. But I don’t know whether there’s a link between that and this subject.
After making a few films about different communities both large and small that survey some of their contemporary concerns, you’ve now made your last two films about family––A Couple about a marriage, and now Menus-Plaisirs about the Troisgros family, which was originally titled at the funding stage as A Family Business, I believe.
That was just a working title, which I never liked very much. I needed a working title, so I used that, but I never seriously considered it.
Has this shift to focusing on family been a conscious choice or something that has happened naturally?
No, it just happened. I didn’t set out to make two films about families; it just worked out that way. If I hadn’t gone to [La Maison Troisgros] for lunch in the summer of 2020, I would’ve made a film on a different subject.
A lot of your work through the years has vacillated between open, accessible places like the library or Central Park and then places that are closed off for various reasons, like the training base in Missile or a domestic-violence shelter. The Troisgrois restaurant definitely falls in the latter, a place that most people will never be able to access. Does your mindset change at all based on whether the subject is something generally accessible or not?
No, that’s something that hadn’t really occurred to me. The restaurant is closed-off to most people because it’s expensive. But for the people that eat there, the Troisgros make a point of showing them the kitchen, if they’re interested in seeing it. Michel––at some point in one of those conversations toward the end of the film––says to some of the customers that people working in the kitchen like it when customers come in the kitchen because it presents a human face for the people that they’re cooking for. There is a deliberate effort to show the kitchen to the people that come to the restaurant. And the kitchen is designed so there’s enough space for people to come through and observe without interfering with the process of preparing the food.
It’s a beautiful space, that’s for sure.
It was designed by a famous French architect, Patrick Bouchain. The Troisgros family took an active part with Bouchain in designing the restaurant.
The restaurant clearly bore more interest for you than the hotel side of the business. Can you explain a bit about why that was?
The hotel side of the business was basically sleeping. As you know, there’s a short sequence with the chambermaids making up the beds––so you get to see the hotel, the place where the people have breakfast, and what the rooms look like. But the center of the activity, as far as I was concerned, was the restaurant… but I wanted to show that they had a hotel.
I want to ask about the table of diners that seemed to be a mix of the English-speaking men. The ones that all take out their phones to snap pictures of the food. Were there many groups of diners that primarily spoke English while you were there, or was this one of the only groups you saw?
I think a lot of American and English clients come through. Most of the clients are French… I have no idea the percentage, but certainly a lot of Americans come to the restaurant.
The nationality of the clients you see in the restaurant is not in any way meant to reflect the percentage of people from different countries. It’s more of a reflection of the conversations that interested me in the dining room.
Such as the long conversation with the cheese cart, which definitely interested me.
While making the film, did you think at all about the parallels between the chefs and their clients and you and your audience?
No. I never think about my audience; I don’t know how to think about it because I don’t know who it is. There’s a lot of phony-baloney about thinking about an audience. I mean, I’ve talked to you on the phone but I don’t really know you. How can I have you in mind? I have a hard enough time trying to think about [the material]. It would be sheer projective fantasy if I tried to anticipate what anybody else would think about [the film].
One of the things that took me by surprise was this perception of a dish between a chef and a diner. Previous to the film, when I would receive a dish at a nice restaurant, I had this idea that the dish was this final version––the perfect endpoint in the eyes of the chef. But listening to Michel and Cesar in the film, it’s clear that the dish is a living, breathing thing they will continue to tweak and perfect over days and weeks.
That’s absolutely right. They’re really artists in any sense or meaning of the word art. Not only are they concerned with the creation of the dish, but also the way it looks on the plate. As you saw in the film, every plate is inspected, usually by one of them, before it gets taken out to the dining room. If a raspberry or a kidney is an eighth of a millimeter out of place, they take a tweezer and put it in the right place. They’re concerned as much with the color and shape and form of the presentation on the plate as they are with the taste of the food.
Frederick Wiseman at the 61st New York Film Festival. Photo by Mettie Ostrowski.
Do you feel that way at all about your films or the creative process? Does it feel like something that you could continue to tweak and make better, but at some point you have to put it on the plate?
Well, yes. I mean, a difference between what I do and what they do––if one talks about that in an abstract sense––what I do has a more enduring form; what they do gets consumed. What they do is more like ballet. Not only in the movements in the kitchen, but it’s ephemeral because it’s consumed. It’s like ballet or theater. What I do has a somewhat more permanent form than is provided by the digestive system.
There’s a lot of parallels between Menus-Plaisirs and Ballet for me. One of which is this look at the passing-down of traditions, how each new generation has their own interpretation of that tradition.
Cooking has that in common with dance, and Michel talks explicitly about this idea. His concluding speech is all about transition and finding himself between generations past and moving into a new era for him and his family.
I’m curious how this resonates with you as a filmmaker. Your work means a lot to many directors. For instance, I know it resonates a lot with the group of independent Chinese documentary guys who saw your work for the first time in the early ‘90s. Do you think at all about your role in this tradition of filmmaking––where you’ve taken it and where it’s going?
No. I don’t. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t know how. Obviously I’m glad people see the films––I’m glad they take away something from them, I’m glad they think about them––but that’s not at all why I make them. It’s not really anything I think about.
On that same topic. One of the filmmakers from that generation, Wu Wenguang, was I believe invited to stay with you for a bit and watch you edit some of Belfast, Maine. Have there been, over the years, other filmmakers with whom you’ve fostered that kind of relationship or opportunity?
Not that I can think of. Wu Wenguang got in touch with me years ago and we became friends. I invited him to come visit me in Maine, but I can’t think of anybody else.
Back to Menus-Plaisirs: for the beekeeper scene, I’m curious, did you wear a beekeeper suit or were you recording from a safe distance?
The beekeeper had extra-protective clothing, so we all had that.
I hope someone got some on-set pictures of that.
Yes, but they’ll never be made public.
I wanted to ask about the end of Menus-Plaisirs. Usually, when you end a film––especially after a speech, which I’d say is a bit of a signature of yours––you typically move to these Ozu-like cutaways to the streets outside or a pier or clouds. It has this feeling of a coda that can be important to the structure. In Menus-Plaisirs, following Michel’s speech, it cuts to brief shots of the dining room and then of the room with refrigerated wine. It’s not quite as abrupt as the ending of Deaf following AG Gaston’s speech, but it’s close. I know you labor over decisions like this, so I’m curious: what goes into the decision between an ending like this or in Deaf versus an ending like City Hall or Boxing Gym or even The Store, which cuts to the street after Stanley Marcus’ speech?
Among the shots that I had that I considered for ending the film, that was the best one.
It’s that simple for you?
Yes. I thought it worked thematically, it’s a nice shot, and I also wanted to give the sense that it keeps on going. It’s not over.
You told me once that you always have your whole filmography in your mind when working on a new film. I wondered if, since you’ve been working on the restorations of much of your work for the past couple years, have details of your films been even more in the forefront of your mind?
I don’t want to underline too much the sense that I’m thinking about my filmography. When I come across a sequence that resembles a sequence in another film, initially, it just amuses me and I may or may not use it. But I would not say it’s at the forefront of my mind. If it’s something I recognize and I can fit it in, I mainly like to fit it in as kind of a joke because it creates an echo of the previous work.
How are those restorations going?
We just have four or five more to do.
In Ballet, there’s a scene where Agnes de Mille is being interviewed at age 87, and she’s asked why she continues to keep working. She says “stubbornness and ego.” I want to ask you the same question: what is it that keeps you working at this stage in your life?
Her answer is good. I don’t know what else to do. I like working and it keeps me off the street. I’m going to continue to work as long as I’m physically able. But, as you know, it’s physically demanding. And I’m not getting any younger, as the cliche goes.
Are you working on something new?
No, I’m not working on anything new.
Do you have a favorite scene from the new film?
No. Strangely enough, I like them all.
I know you’re fond of good food, obviously, but do you like cooking?
Yeah, I do like cooking. Although I don’t do any fancy cooking, but I cook. You know, spaghetti… various kinds of spaghetti and salads, but no fancy cooking.
You said you ate at the restaurant every day. Did you have a favorite dish?
No. They gave us lunch and dinner the five days a week that they were open and we ate with the chefs.
Did you ever think you’d capture a dish more beautiful and elegant than the egg and banana salad featured in Zoo?
[Laughs] I’m glad that you’re recalling the egg and banana salad.
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros opens at NYC’s Film Forum on November 22 and will expand.