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.Film Review: ‘Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros’

Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary envisions a French restaurant as a version of utopia

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In Frederick Wiseman’s 44th documentary, Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros, no omniscient narrator appears on screen or via voiceover to introduce the characters. The four-hour film (!) begins with a medium shot of the Roanne train station, the exterior of which is painted a charming shade of mustard yellow. The director’s camera remains at that medium distance throughout the narrative, lingering from scene to scene, while allowing the images to explain themselves.

Wiseman only deviates from that semi-distant observational—and deliberately anti-expository—point of view when he enters the Troisgros family’s restaurants. Led by chef Michel Troisgros and his two sons, César and Léo, their approach to hospitality has secured Michelin stars spanning several generations of cooks and restaurateurs. Their family business has also made the region a celebrated culinary destination.

When the camera zooms in for a closeup, it doesn’t focus on any of the Troisgros’ faces. Wiseman reserves closeups for tantalizing plates of food. Whatever emotional intimacy the viewer develops for the Troisgros family is a result of seeing their interactions, which fuel the physical and intellectual compositions behind each and every dish. Those “little pleasures,” or menus-plaisirs, are the real stars of the film.

When Michel begins to talk about the influence of Japanese cuisine or handing the restaurant he’s helmed for decades over to César, he doesn’t address the camera. Michel, like every other subject, speaks to someone within the frame. He engages in confessional chats with customers, revisits the details of the menu with his sons or preps dishes with an array of sous-chefs in the paradoxically busy yet serene kitchen. The professional history of the Troisgros family is a side dish served up as Menus-Plaisirs moves through its third and fourth hours.  

After the opening shot of the train station, the Troisgros brothers are filmed at a farmers’ market. They bring a bounty of vegetables back to the restaurant to go over the ingredients with their father. In the discussion that follows, a dialogue about asparagus, passionfruit and rhubarb turns into a philosophical and artistic inquiry about technique, appearance and taste. The pace of the exchange rivals every Éric Rohmer movie.

While the Troisgros family members are the central players in Menus-Plaisirs, their way of life allows us a glimpse inside an actual working utopia. The chefs make regional visits to farmers, vintners, shepherds, cheesemongers and ranchers. There are extended exchanges about every aspect of the way in which animals are fed and tended, how produce is grown and what the rinds of cheese tell us about the way it will taste.

Apart from the obvious beauty of this enviable Eden, with its rolling green hills yielding a cornucopia of gastronomic delights, the Troisgros clan has achieved an ideal workplace. Wiseman follows a troop of white-coated cooks wandering in an orchard together to cut fresh herbs. They are a vision that pairs productivity with happiness.

The kitchen where they chop, bake and sauté is a wide-open space where each person concentrates, creates and is always supported by their cohorts. Pans don’t clatter and nobody raises their voice to admonish a botched sauce or an undercooked rack of lamb. Once the food is plated, the waitstaff lift up enormous trays to deliver them to the glassed-in dining room overlooking a garden. The head waiter presides over his employees with an unwavering tone of amiability. His equanimity and generosity of manner are the ultimate antidotes to the manufactured melodrama of reality programming.

Troisgros is the name of the family’s primary restaurant, but there’s also a hotel on the grounds. The director moves out of the dining room to follow Michel’s wife, Marie-Pierre, who leads the staff there. Marie-Pierre explains to visitors that her exquisite décor is an eclectic mix of old and new. Nestled behind a lovely lobby desk, a kindly receptionist answers the telephone to help a potential guest with room rates and open dates. Maids flap the cleanest sheets and blankets over beds before adjusting and arranging collections of desirable objets d’art. Rays of sunshine filter through every window. The Troisgros family is bathed and blessed by light.

‘Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros’ premieres on your local PBS station Friday, March 22.


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