Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros (Frederick Wiseman, US)

By Jay Kuehner

At a recent NYFF talk on the trustworthiness of the documentary image, Frederick Wiseman quipped that back in 1968, having immersed himself in a prison for the criminally insane for his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), the logical milieu for a follow-up was that of a high school; hence, the subsequent year’s High School. Given the stylistic consistency yet markedly disparate subject matter of his vast oeuvre to date, it is curious to consider what, if anything, constituted the precedent for his latest film, Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros, a typically protracted look at an historically family-run restaurant near Lyon. What can the artist tell us about the institution when it seems he has, from the perspective of a certain cinema culture, become one himself?

The contemporary emergence of food as an instrument of entertainment, yoked to the mesmeric appeal of the innocuous process video, has cultivated formerly fallow terrain into something ripe, and counter to the Troisgros family wisdom that “cuisine isn’t the movies.” A film dedicated to the fastidiousness of culinary craft invariably calls attention to the commensurate means of documenting it, and even if the mirroring of mise en place in mise en scène is perhaps too meta for the film’s concerns, it nevertheless implicates the presence of the camera in telling yet evenhanded ways. While Wiseman and DP James Bishop deliberately capture patrons making pictures of their food in our contemporary mise en abyme of consumption—in which the imaging of food has seemingly become part of the metabolic process itself, the camera phone another utensil on the table alongside the well-polished cutlery—this reads more like a wink than a concerted sociological swipe, considering there’s a cameraperson openly oscillating about the dining room.       

More germane is the question of how to situate the film within the dialectical lines established by Wiseman’s ongoing inquiry between (physical) condition and (social) place, and from experiential to institutional, which are always inextricable in his work. Menus-Plaisirs operates at a comfortable remove from both—it’s at once a document of a pastoral restaurant (replete with shots of horses grazing in the pasture, clouds passing, chopped wood neatly stacked) and a chronicle of its workers (mostly chefs bowed with purpose over their respective kitchen stations, performing implausible culinary sleight of hand). The culinary art requires intensive labour, much of it in the service of pure ephemera, and thus the film’s more intimate attention to the sheer work of cooking proves its greatest provision.   

There is no cultural or institutional polemic here; Menus-Plaisirs eschews the severity of Jean-Michel Barjol and Jean Eustache’s Le cochon (1970), with its ritualistic pig slaughter as stark communal ethnography, or Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s dystopian portrait of industrial-scale food production in Our Daily Bread (2005). Rather, Wiseman’s gaze assumes the modest perspective of a stagiaire: observant, unobtrusive, curious, obliging, loosely following the Troisgros family in the daily operation of their establishment (in operation since 1930, which coincidentally makes it as old as Wiseman himself). Now in its newest iteration as Le Bois sans Feuilles, the restaurant is about to see a fourth generation take over, as magnanimous pére Michel prepares to hand head-chef responsibilities to fils César (and to a lesser extent the younger Léo, who cooks at the affiliate La Colline). We are witness to market visits and menu planning between the two before ever stepping into the kitchen, in sequences that serve as an amuse-bouche: shots of oyster mushrooms as big as squid, quenelles with white asparagus and almond mousseline, caper leaves imported from Sicily. 

The “action” is otherwise confined to the family’s three restaurants (as well as a guesthouse run by Michel’s wife, Marie-Pierre) and detours to various rendezvous with suppliers, whose respective practices of raising cattle, goats, and legumes reveal deep commitments to the land and its biodiversity. These dispatches are affirmative, albeit expository, lessons on the necessity of minimal intervention in nature, but they also lack the immersive tendencies of Wiseman’s more cynical work (Meat [1976] comes to mind) due to the rather perfunctory blocking of the encounters between chef and farmer, suggesting a choreography of content that inevitably flatters both parties. While not hagiographic, Wiseman’s portrait of this culinary dynasty is no doubt conditioned somewhat by a persistent PR apparatus.   

That the restaurant staff functions like an ensemble cast, with Michel its paternal lead, reveals Wiseman’s subtle dramaturgic design. There is no conspicuous narrative arc, however, only a marked rise in kitchen temperature as the film moves from the meditative ritual of prep to the live act of service. Extended runtimes feel organic as ever with Wiseman, owing to a novelistic sense of detail by way of duration. (For Wiseman, shooting is conceived of as a form of preparatory research while narrative is a function of editing, hence his famous formulation of “reality fictions.”) The four-hour runtime here mimics that of a multi-course sit-down meal, digestible in its digressions. The peculiar slackening that occurs on account of Wiseman’s method, derived as much from patience as a surfeit of coverage, wrests intrigue from the inconsequential. Witness the professional dialogue between Michel and Léo, the latter defending the high-contrast flavours of a dish, as it shades into a case of the proverbial generational gap, a father-son tête-à-tête expressed through rhubarb and asparagus, soy sauce and elderberry—cooking as familial approval and challenge. 

Is the becalmed mood testament to the Troisgros professional ethos, or a selective fiction of the filmmaker’s discretion? No doubt a legion of cooks watching the proceedings will find points of identification, but rightfully bemoan the absence of any irremediable mistakes, let alone forearm burns, knife wounds, verbal abuse, drug habits, or mental breakdowns (one cook, defaulted for his improper bleeding of lamb’s brains, is scolded with a deep dive in the Larousse Gastronomique). Perhaps such histrionics are best left to cooking channels and other kitchen confidentials, but the astonishing array of technique on display here appears without palpable sacrifice, executed by a committed brigade de cuisine that is the film’s real subject (with all deference to those lovely rosettes of John Dory). A brief cutaway to Léo and a fellow chef, playfully agonizing over a ping-pong table, offers a telling glimpse into an unlived life; in another interlude, César and his wife attempt to feed their new baby as Michel looks on, a tableau suggesting that this is where it all begins, or rather ends. 

The contrast to the rarified dining experience to which these men have devoted their careers is, for a moment, wistfully stark. There is a genuine sense here of cooking as a labour of love, only to be lost to the tyranny of haute cuisine and its exclusive audience. The open kitchen, Michel insists, affords transparency while also allowing chefs to put faces to their diners, but the divide is nonetheless conspicuous. Who is performing for whom in this awkward embrace? 

It is considered impolite to bring politics to the dinner table, but as Wiseman has made a career of showing, it is inseparable from the administrations of any social interaction. “Food is a language we all speak,” says one service staff during lineup, citing author Olena Braichenko before a charity dinner for Ukraine. Yet, as her very research through Їzhakultura makes evident, it is also a language marked by silence for many. There is only so much the beauty of an artichoke can do.

It was Brillat-Savarin, in his Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, who exalted the discovery of a new dish as conferring happiness upon humanity, citing taste as definitive. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” he famously quipped. But over a century and half later it was Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, who effectively inverted the aphorism: tell me what you are and I will tell you what you eat. Menus-Plaisirs appears poised at the intersection of such foodways, in which Wiseman’s ode to fine cooking limns its very habitus, vast yet limited in scope. In this judicious document of a very discerning establishment, it’s regrettable that we ultimately never get to see the dish pit. Kuehner Jay