For most of Frederick Wiseman’s career, the master documentarian has focused on the lives and institutions of the United States. His films have painted a nearly 60-year developmental portrait of an evolving America, full of imagined utopias (Aspen), too-real dystopias (Public Housing), and the flawed systems that offer varying degrees of hope (Juvenile Court). It isn’t often that Wiseman takes his focus away from his home country, but he seems to also feel at home in France. These French excursions are comparably low-stakes, almost like a vacation for the 93-year-old director (though never made with less effort or curiosity), and most focus on his love for performance: La Danse, Crazy Horse, and La Comédie-Française. Now, he has returned to his second home to document a different sort of performance — the gastronomic ballet of the fine dining experience.
Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros mostly follows head chef Michel Troisgros through all of his administrative duties in running his three-Michelin-star La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, an idyllic community just outside Lyon. While this means that plenty of attention is given to the restaurant itself — a nice, modern building with floor-to-ceiling windows to show off the local vegetation and lend an air of en plain air dining — Wiseman also follows Michel on his field trips to farms and markets. Ingredients mentioned and fought over in the market scenes suddenly make another appearance in conversations about the menu in the restaurant itself, making it then triply gratifying to see those ingredients suddenly gracing a dish three hours into this four-hour exploration of modern French cuisine. And, this being a Wiseman venture, scenes of meticulous phone calls and scheduling are thankfully left in, such that a similarly gratifying feeling may come when a call to a wine rep results in Michel’s tour of a vineyard, which opens up a conversation about what wines La Maison Troisgros has kept in stock, which finally culminates in a waiter’s spiel about the local wine being served to inquisitive customers. Behind every dish and behind every ingredient is a character and a story — a schmaltzy line every fine dining restaurant touts on their website’s “About” page — but here, Wiseman is keen to associate each part of the experience with a character, a meeting, a tour, a scene.
Sadly, this documentary lacks the drama that comes with the territory of something like City Hall or the celebratory nature of Crazy Horse. Though this is certainly not a fault of the film itself, there’s not exactly a dearth of footage of the backrooms of kitchens and the private frustrations of restaurateurs. But while this may be familiar material to those who binge shows on Food Network or the Travel Channel, Wiseman’s style removes the need for empty visual flourishes of each dish (most of which are hardly visible once they’ve left the kitchen) in favor of seeing the restaurant at a wide enough angle so that all of its vital organs are on display, moving and pumping and helping it live. So many recurring characters — sous-chefs, pâtissiers, servers, managers, and the hotelier of the Troisgros estate (as well as Michel’s wife), Marie-Pierre — reverently collaborate with Michel, though they are no strangers to outright argumentation if they know it’ll make a better product, Michel’s word be damned. It’s through those dialectical arrangements that the film’s true pleasures emerge, as, at the end of the night, after the all-too-pleased Americans have settled to roost, and the evening rush has finished their wine, Michel can recollect the history of his new building to a curious gourmand, who’d just finishing tasting his personalized menu: the result of arguments, schedules, construction, tours, plants, cows, dirt, and fire.
Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 3.