Review by Camden Ferrell
Frederick Wiseman is seen by many as one of the most significant and important figures in documentary filmmaking. His influential work dates back to the 1960’s, but he’s still in full force, making movies at the impressive age of 93. Menus – Plaisirs — Les Troisgros is his newest film that had its premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. At four hours, this is a hefty documentary that goes by rather swiftly thanks to sharp editing and an engrossing and compelling subject.
The Troisgros family is a dynasty of culinary prestige, owning and operating three restaurants in central France. Troisgros, the restaurant at which this film predominantly takes place, has been around for 93 years and has maintained three Michelin stars for 55 of them. This film follows the present chef and staff as they prepare for service at their restaurant. This might sound like a simple premise, but Wiseman is able to dissect this premise and allow the viewer to closely analyze the minutiae that goes into operating a restaurant of this caliber.
The subject itself lends itself well to narrative storytelling. There’s no ambiguity in the process of running these restaurants. The film’s lengthy runtime allows us to see every tiny aspect from start to finish. We see the purchase of vegetables in a local market, the visit to a cheese processing center, the creation and preparation of their dishes, etc. For example, the movie is able to spend several minutes on the nuances of different ingredients and their effects on an almond purée without feeling like it’s at the expense of something more important to the overarching story. It’s a behemoth of a process to capture in a movie, and the narrative structure works very well in achieving its goal.
Passion and skill combine to make the people in this film engaging to watch. We get to see Cesar Troisgros carry on his family’s legacy, and seeing this generational honor blend with his genuine fascination and expertise with food is something truly special. He surrounds himself with individuals who are knowledgeable about their fields of work, and it’s clear that they love what they do. This enthusiasm is what prevents this movie from dragging in places it otherwise would have. Even for someone like me who doesn’t partake in fine dining, this is an excellent group of people to watch and learn from.
The first two hours of this movie are absolutely engrossing and masterful, and it makes a strong case for being the best documentary of the year. However, in the latter half of the movie, there is an abrupt shift outside of the restaurant, as the story detours to the source of the restaurant’s wine and cheese. This tangent is relevant but not particularly necessary. It disrupts the ethereal momentum that the movie had built up, and it doesn’t ever fully recover from that. The movie still finishes strong, but it feels like there’s a 210-minute movie here that would have worked better.
Menus – Plaisirs — Les Troisgros boasts a daunting runtime, but it flies by far faster than one would expect. Watching the people in this documentary do what they love never gets boring, and there are some almost mesmerizing sequences throughout the film that will make the most stubborn cynic of fine dining fall in love with the craft briefly. At the age of 93, Wiseman has made a movie that is mature yet energetic, and it’s a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker that a movie this strong feels almost effortless on his end.
Menus – Plaisirs — Les Troisgros is in theaters November 22.