Review: In Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros, Documentarian Frederick Wiseman Brings His Usual, and Sumptuous, Knack for Intense Observation
I have written at length about the works of master documentarian Frederick Wiseman, whose style of filmmaking is passive in the filming and quite active in the editing. There’s no narration, title cards, or talking-to-the-camera interviews, yet Wiseman still manages to convey massive amounts of information and fully immerse us in whatever world he’s decided upon, often in films that run three to four hours in length. His obsessions are institutions and the process that makes the seemingly chaotic into a well-oiled machine. His subjects across his 44 documentaries have included mental hospitals, high schools, the New York Public Library, art museums, women’s shelters, police departments, the City Hall of Boston, a premier ballet company, and, in his latest work, Menus Plaisirs - Les Troisgros, a family-owned, three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the countryside of central France.
The ultimate observer, Wiseman doesn’t just fill this sprawling, four-hour piece with extended scenes of chefs preparing one magnificent meal after another. He’s interested in what keeps an establishment (actually three) running smoothly while maintaining its long-established quality (the primary location, Le Bois Sans Feuilles, run by patriarch Michel Troisgros, has held onto its three stars since 1968). The Troisgros family also operate Le Central, in a neighboring city, and La Colline du Colombier, run by younger son Léo (elder son César is technically head chef at the flagship restaurant, which also includes a boutique hotel, overseen by Michel’s wife Marie-Pierre). While food is the primary focal point of the film, the entire operations of all three locations are examined to varying degrees, including a look at how they are connected and how they aren’t.
The film takes us through brainstorming sessions that result in new menu items and include absolutely no preparation or tasting; it’s simply a group of clefs with highly trained palates who know what flavors and textures go best together. We see Michel visiting local providers of wine, cheese, meat, and produce to see how their processes impact the way their products taste. There are runs to local markets for ingredients, and an entire section of the film devoted to Michel going table to table, visiting with diners who have often paid hundreds or thousands of dollars to be there. It’s during the visits that we get all of the biographical information we need on the Troisgros family. We learn about the layout of the kitchen, watch Chef Michel gently scold his underlings about preparation mistakes (his seeming calm somehow makes it worse), and see the full spectrum of pretentious customers (the Americans are clearly the worst).
In other words, by the end of Menus Plaisirs (which translates into Pleasure Menus), you know this family franchise inside and out and have become fully invested in the lives of everyone who works there. Wiseman is a master craftsman, never afraid to linger in a moment too long, if it means getting to better understand the inner workings of whatever institution upon which he’s chosen to cast his eyes. This is his first doc since 2020’s City Hall, and he usually works much faster than that (often averaging one film per year). But at age 93 (94 on New Year’s Day), perhaps we’ll allow him to slack off just a little. Until the next one, enjoy this sumptuous delight.
The film opens theatrically on Friday, exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.