The first of Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros‘ four hours moves as quick as a glacier. Herbs are inspected at a farmer’s market. Two chefs weigh up the benefits of pike and zander. Fans of Frederick Wiseman, immediately recognizing these rhythms, know to sit back and relax: his cinema is usually as taxing as a breath of air––probably as good for the system. Plaisirs is Wiseman at his most indulgent. There is a section that goes in deep on how cheese is aged. There is a visit to a beekeeper and another to a vineyard. But Plaisirs‘ 240 minutes are mostly spent charting a day in the life at Troisgros, one of the oldest three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Suffice it to say: do not enter on an empty stomach.
Plaisirs is among a handful of the director’s 50-odd films set in France. Crazy Horse (2011), Le Danse (2009), and La Comédie–Française ou L’amour joué (1995) all focused on Parisian cultural institutions. Last year’s A Couple, shot during the pandemic, was a rare work of fiction. Wiseman, who lives in Paris and speaks French fluently, has operated at the forefront of American documentary cinema for more than six decades. Over time his work has come to ennoble not only the institutions themselves (always his bread and butter) but the deceptively simple act of human beings working together, and at a time when that act seems increasingly strained. Menu Plaisirs is not amongst his masterpieces but it’s a fine late addition to the Wiseman canon––even in a media landscape so saturated with food shows and celebrity chefs, the director’s made a film that feels both fresh and artistically stimulating, unmistakably his own.
The central figure to emerge is Michel Troisgros, a grandson of the restaurant’s original owner, Jean-Baptiste Troisgros, and now the establishment’s chief proprietor. As the film shows, Troisgros and its satellite businesses remain a family affair: Michel’s son Leo runs a sister restaurant, La Colline du Colombier, on the other side of town; his other son, Cesar, works alongside him, experimenting with new dishes and is heir apparent. On one or two occasions we hear Michel pointing out that Colombier is yet to receive a star, but otherwise the Troisgros culinary empire appears a relatively genial one. There is nothing of the soured intergenerational squabbles from, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi––another film about a father, son, and the three stars that hung between them.
Which isn’t to say you won’t start pining for some. Happy families, as always, remain stubbornly alike, and if there’s one thing Plaisirs lacks it’s a sense of flux. No mutinies are threatened. Aside from the question of when Michel will decide to pass his torch, no cultural shift looms large. Everything moves as precisely as advertised. In exchange we get a slow, sumptuous helping of Wiseman’s unhurried style. Menu is presented as a single day: prep and service for the lunch crowd, the same for the evening, with an epilogue of Michel visiting tables to talk with the guests. We are reminded of the importance of sourcing locally and, rather poignantly, that great things often take time with many sets of hands. We also see how a filet of John Dory might be sculpted into a flower.
One of the most endearing things about Wiseman’s films, especially of late, is their polite refusal to allow the people in charge, however well-meaning, to define their institutions. Wiseman’s interests are in the ecosystem: what makes it balance, how it all coexists. The decisions of a board room, Wiseman seems to argue, are only as important as the people who keep things running, or the ripple effect on patrons and surrounding communities. Wiseman is 93 years old––is it too much to still expect that sort of granular detail? Uncharacteristically, there’s no sense of the gnarlier side of kitchen work. Smoke breaks and pot-washing are notable for their absence––those grace notes where Wiseman’s films tend to breathe and find humor. I’ve been lucky enough to see a few of his premieres in Venice; Menus Plaisirs (in which the director remained seated for the entirety) might have been the first without a single audible laugh.
This is a good Wiseman, if not a great one. And––as ever––we live in hope for one more. In his director’s statement, the nonagenarian sounded reassuringly undimmed: “Making a film about a 3-star Michelin restaurant had always been one of my fantasies.” Another box ticked on an indefatigable career.
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, will screen at the 61st New York Film Festival, and will open at Film Forum on November 22.