French Restaurant Doc Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros Needs to be Savoured | IFI French Film Festival

Frederick Wiseman is the cinéaste of institutions. Even his one narrative film, A Couple, composed as a series of monologues by Sophia Tolstaya, centres around an institution. A cursory glance over his filmography reveals something of a topography in abstract of far-flung corners of modern life. The title that most often attaches to his name is Titicut Follies. Massachusetts undertook an extended pursuit of censorship to prevent this, his debut feature, from being shown. It is not that the state found anything obscene about what Wiseman depicts, it is, rather, that his patient camera documented the daily reality of an institution the state preferred to keep hidden from public eyes. Documentation can be radical.

Many of Wiseman’s films embed themselves within public institutions, or else, that chosen neoliberal pet, the public-private partnership (e.g. Ex Libris), but there is another current in his work which observes rarified cultural activities. Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros falls into this latter category.

Most immediately felt is the rhythm of the kitchen. Wiseman’s film, and the Troisgros’ workspace, is the palliative for any number of nightmare kitchen depictions. Absent are the histrionics popular consciousness demands of celebrity chefs, replaced instead with a decidedly artisanal approach. I count at least three generations of the family engaged in the operation of the business and this from (the proverbial) farm-to-table. Menus-Plaisirs is most engaging as a documentation of fine craftsmanship. The chefs are as studious in the composition of their dishes as Wiseman is in the editing of countless hours of footage. It is hard not to be drawn into the work. The kitchen comes to resemble an atelier. Dishes are scrutinised, flavours (like pigments) are modified. The consistency of a dessert receives the same attention as does the plating of fish. Moreover, there is neither the throwing of instruments nor the scolding of chefs. Mistakes are teaching opportunities; techniques can be demonstrated and methods studied.

My mind starts to wander, however, when the sommelier starts talking about wine at €5,000 per bottle. Reservations, I glean from a meeting among the wait staff, range anywhere from about €350 to €550 per table. For this, clients arrive from the world over. This is an institution for the other half. Though this is, perhaps, myopic. Like the ateliers, fine dining draws from a world not unlike that of fine art. One where, Fran Lebowitz once remarked, people applaud the winning bid, not the Picasso.


What draws me to Wiseman is his curiosity for how things work. What I find compelling in a film like Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is the elucidation of a public good. I could ostensibly make use of the Library, though one closer to home serves its purpose. Public libraries (ideally) serve a civic function. There is in both Ex Libris and Menus-Plaisirs a geographic specificity serving to tie the activities in question to a discrete time and place, to a network of interrelations. In the former, however, I found a more rigorous cross-section of the lives potentially affected by the continued operation of the institution. This is not to say that it is uncomplicated, as the New York Public Library is supported by both public and private money. In Ex Libris, my mind wanders towards the fate of a public sphere steered by private funding. In Menus-Plaisirs, I cannot escape what private money can secure for itself. You could mount a Troisgros next to the Picasso. Wiseman is, fortunately, too careful a filmmaker to simply make a fetish object out of haute cuisine. Restaurant floors need to be Hoovered, regardless of the cost of a table.

Menus­-Plaisirs is a film about how certain types of work intersect and support one another. The restaurants operated by the Troisgros family are not entirely self-sufficient and they do not run on food alone. There is a network of labour undergirding the operation of any institution. Wiseman’s disciplined camera demands a disciplined spectator. There is a lot to see, if only we look.

Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros screens on November 26 as part of the IFI French Film Festival

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