Venice Review: Frederick Wiseman’s Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros (2023)
By Christopher Small
Menus Plaisirs - Les Troisgros (Frederick Wiseman, 2023)
Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros, about a three Michelin-star restaurant in the south of France, is Frederick Wiseman’s 47th film. He has produced singular works of non-fiction—until 2007 mostly for public television—steadfastly since 1967, when he was 38 (he’s now almost 94). Then the movies were considerably shorter; since the early ‘90s, his films have ballooned in length. For the first two decades of his career, his runtimes averaged anywhere from 85 to 130 minutes. After Near Death (1989), a six-hour portrait of the doctors and patients in an intensive care ward at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, they became consistently longer. Menus Plaisirs, which is exactly four hours, comes a close fifth place, length-wise, at the top of his filmography. At the Venice premiere last week, Wiseman, who is well-known for his vigorous energy and punishing shooting and editing schedule, walked with a cane and, in speaking about the new film, wavered uncertainly a little over his responses. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he still personally wields the boom pole and microphone during production, as he has for all previous films up until recently.
Among other things, the epic length of Wiseman’s documentaries assure our total absorption in the intricacies of the institutions he takes as his subjects. He is driven by a genuine and unflappable curiosity about all aspects of a place: committee meetings, janitor routes, tours, helpline desks, budget negotiations, and so on. Menus Plaisirs is no exception. We see the meticulous work of the chefs in the kitchen, the wealthy customers eating out front, the farmers who raise the livestock in adjacent farms, the curing of a breathtaking number of cheeses at a local dairy, the sourcing of local vegetables and herbs from vendors in the nearby region, the conscientious and thoughtful construction of a menu not only at the main restaurant but also at others belonging to the Troisgros family. This overplenty of procedural detail means that, blissfully, the film only truly begins to flower in one’s mind once its four hours are over.
As ever, Wiseman, in structuring the film, simulates the passing of one day to another, with para-fictional structures woven out of the reams of material gathered during the shooting. Part of the pleasure of his films is the way we are always conscious of the way he is, as an editor, regulating our attention. He builds, say, from an intense discussion about grapes and all the microscopic flavours that can influence them from one season to the next to procedural work in the kitchen (chopping and preparing ingredients, for example) and then on to the second half of the work day, during which light slowly turns to dark and the restaurant grows populated again. Wiseman is building a framework for us to understand his play with time, the expansion and contraction of it from one sequence to the next.
There is a stupefying amount of work and professional expertise at play in Menus Plaisirs. What sets it apart from Wiseman’s recent films is that those movies, even and especially when they were about cultural institutions, depicted the work of bureaucracies of one kind or another, whether in the organisation of a city, a rural town, a district in Queens, or a major museum, library, or university. There, Wiseman often seemed to be suggesting that bureaucratic structures, for all their tedium, complexity, and even violence, are essential to the operations of a free society. In Menus Plaisirs, we see relatively little of the specific bureaucratic organisation of the restaurant and the hotel that make up La Maison Troisgros. Glimpses of these procedures are limited, perhaps necessarily by the requirements of shooting in a prominent private business, to a few general discussions about budgets and costs, a couple of shots of the receptionist taking calls inquiring about bookings at the hotel, and a sequence or two with Marie-Pierre Troisgros, who handles the administration of the place.
Far more space is given over the work of creation on the part of the chefs: the intricacies involved in preparing these dishes, the supporting work from a galaxy of kitchen staff, the requirements of storage, packaging, wrapping, preparing, slicing, dishing up, and so on. Outside, the dishes are served to those who can afford it: wealthy customers and their families. In one discussion, we hear about a customer’s reservation of a 15,000€ bottle of wine for later in the season. We see laughable posturing on the part of some American businessmen who are evidently trying to impress the expert head waiter serving them a variety of local wines. We see a sleek helicopter touching down on a makeshift helipad in the garden of the restaurant without ever seeing who was travelling in it. Wiseman’s unblinking camera never acknowledges the fundamental tension at play here, between the meticulous, artistic craftsmanship behind the walls of the kitchen, the performance-like precision of the waiting staff, and then the extraordinary class privilege of the diners, but it was impossible, at least for me, not to feel his ironic gaze bearing down on these people, as well as, speaking for myself, a healthy amount of class hatred at seeing so much effort, such an Olympian amount of work, preservation, and preparation, go into dishing up a series of evening meals for the French bourgeoisie.
Michel Troisgros, the head chef and co-owner, with his wife, of La Maison Troisgros, is the mediator between these two worlds. He shapes the smallest of behaviours of the front-of-house staff and guides their collective approach to the customers, but he also works with great focus in the kitchen, obsessing over the tiniest position of a raspberry on a desert plate or gently scolding a sous-chef about the right time to drain an animal brain of blood, and then, moments later, is out schmoozing expertly with the customers, repeating well-worn anecdotes and flattering their banal insights into the food and the region. As is often the case with Wiseman’s recent films, and particularly with those that carry the name of even more internationally renowned institutions in their titles, he has an evident respect for the powerful figure who has granted him access to this world—in this case, Michel Troisgros.
Invariably, he sees these people as figures of identification, in this film as much as with the administrators and politicians who run places like the National Gallery in London or the Boston City Hall, two institutions at least nominally committed to the public good. These are men and women who are fluent in the work of institutional diplomacy and management, and they are also often the ones who granted him, in a friendly way, permission to shoot in these locations. In the case of Marty Walsh, who was Boston Mayor at the time Wiseman shot City Hall in 2020 (he later became Biden’s Secretary of Labor), the drive on his part to resolve political conflicts and fight the good fights is undeniable, though Wiseman is also able to show the limits of that work; in other cases, the muddling-through attitude of cloistered leadership figures for whom Wiseman has an apparent affection is less flattering. This is not to say that his style has been totally subsumed by this proximity to influential institutional figures—partly because it is, in its essence, expansive and multifarious and partly because charismatic figures had always asserted themselves at different times in his work—but centering the managerial influence and charismatic power of deans, head chefs, supermanagers, financial directors in this way does, in my view, weaken his overall institutional project.
Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros is primarily a film about improvisation and performance, about straddling the line between a world of process and creative discipline and another of extraordinary wealth and abundance. Wiseman has depicted the horrors of poverty and wealth with equal shrewdness in a variety of situations and institutions throughout his career, but in Menus Plaisirs this structure, moving from kitchen to restaurant, struck me as a comment on the production of art itself: that cultural production is doomed not only to ephemerality (of which cooking, like theatre, is the prime example) but also to isolation from other, less specialised strata of society. The final conversation we hear in the film, indeed, underlines this idea. A customer asks Michel Troisgros why they moved the restaurant from the centre of a nearby town to the seclusion of the countryside. For Michel, the answer is self-evident: they wanted to get away from the noise, the scooters, the traffic, the interruptions of normal life. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows ubiquitous in La Maison Troisgros, now, there is only wide-open countryside: trees, cows, vineyards, rolling hills.
Wiseman, who built a career making films on public television, seems to be suggesting that the intense perfectionism involved in spending countless hours stitching together massive, intricate works of art perhaps dooms these same works, primarily at least, to being consumed by audiences of the privileged. And yet, in the same breath, he also suggests that, for the sake of the work itself, it is worth doing anyway.