Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 21, 2023 7:51 pm 
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A great French restaurant gets the Wiseman treatment

The meticulous observational documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has lived in France lately, and since the nineties made films in France - where it turns out he developed a connection living for two years when quite young, after military service. Is he, in his early nineties, going to defect, like Eugène Green? The most memorable Americans who appear in this four-hour film about the legendary three-star Michelin restaurant Maison Troigros in Roanne, near Lyon, are an absurdly pretentious group of youngish men holding forth about wine with adjectives the French don't use.

But there is no rancor here, and this is a quietly admiring portrait of a social institution one can't but admire: in French there is a saying, "À bien manger, le sage met sa gloire." Roughly, it means, For the wise man, eating well is a big deal." Eating chez Troigros, or any restaurant like that, which will set you back in the vicinity of four hundred dollars per person per meal, not counting wine or the fee for a room at the posh adjoining inn, is a very big deal. But eating is also one of the most fundamental human pleasures. At best, eating at such a place is a wonderful experience, worth the time, attention, and financial outlay. The presence of many return customers is evidence of this. But it is also a great luxury, an outrageous self-indulgence. Such restaurants are very costly and labor-intensive to run; the bill is not actually a ripoff. I at least however, toward the end of the four hours, began to long for a hot dog, in a crisp roll, with a dash of mustard, and a Coke. You may remember that the way high-end dining can tilt toward the absurd, even the nightmarish, was exploited in Mark Mylood's recent feature The Menu.

This is, naturally, being from Wiseman, an intensive account of its subject, to the point at times even of being a bit repetitive. "Menus Plaisirs" means "small pleasures" but also was the rather ironic name for a department of service to the French king in the ancien régime, besides punning on "menu" (not the French word for that, which is "carte.") This reminds one of an earlier documentary about a similarly elite and fanatical and impressive French Michelin starred restaurant, Paul Lacoste's 2011 Entre les Bras, also a punning title, since it refers to passing on control of the establishment but also to the name of the family, Bras. (The English title achieved a pun too with Step Up to the Plate.)

Lacoste's film is austere, but more focused. It defines the plant-based focus of the dishes, focused on fresh herbs and edible flowers, and also delves in depth into the personalities of the father and son chefs and carefully details the difficult process of passing on responsibility for running the Bras restaurant - almost like pulling teeth. There is a hint of that, but only a hint, when Michel Troigros, the father and current scion of the restaurant here, tells a customer, a retired vigneron who has completely turned over independent control of his winery to his sons, that he doesn't find it so easy to do that, even though one son is officially in charge of the kitchen.

Like Lacoste's film, this one begins with buying fresh food in the local market. It is a truism that the quality of what goes on the plate of a restaurant begins with the local, seasonal freshness of ingredients. The film then focuses on many aspects of the restaurant. A lot of time is spent on such things as briefing servers on the day's menu; the importance of draining the blood from brains before cooking; creating new dishes and debating their combination of ingredients and sauces; the somelier's discussion of new wine stock, presold bottles for up to 15,000 euros, very high prices of even recent vintages for prestigious labels; coaching staff to treat other employees more fairly and equally and avoid teasing and using mocking names; the open design of the kitchen (a very interesting aspect), which Michel says means César, his son, can therefore control activity without shouting, because everyone is in sight.

An engrossing side issue is the suppliers. There are informational meetings with several livestock farmers who explain their natural and earth-preserving methods, free of fertilizer and pesticides. For me the most surprising digression is a visit to a cheese-ripening center. Who knew that many of the famous (and not so known) cheeses of France, soft and hard, large and small, offered on a big cart to diners, are skillfully ripened not at home where produced, but in this hand work factory where they are washed, scraped, chilled, and moved about to the exact point when they need to be sold.

The cheese ripening plant is an enlightenment, but departs from Wiseman's "fly on the wall" style, since we are simply following around a man providing a tour of the place. Wiseman's own editing of the sometimes jumpy camerawork of James Bishop, which gives a vérité effect, leads us from one sequence to the next, hypnotically. This is a talky film, relying very much on explanatory scenes. And yet its best moments are wordless. We are inspired and informed by the sight of the deft, graceful manipulation of tools, the flipping of meat in pans, the folding and smoothing out of sauces, the wordless tap on pieces of meat to assess their consistency. This is where we see how much all this is done carefully by hand, and where cooking enthusiasts and pros may learn things even Escoffier and Larousse Gastronomique, may not cover.

Something that seems new (or risen to a new extreme) is more elaborate catering to whims and needs of diners, whose allergies, intolerances, and preferences are gone into in tireless detail. Hours before the meal, the servers are briefed oh customers, which tables they will be at and which servers will be assigned to them, and all those special needs. This may seem an odd development in a world where the chefs are famous and thought to call the shots. The Triogros family were influential in the development of the "nouvelle cuisine" movement starting in the sixties which revolutionized French cooking style. Now however it seems they must rearrange deserts because someone doesn't like cream, and these special requirements seem to be very numerous indeed. One customer, more down to earth, declares the only thing he's allergic to is the bill.

Something old fashioned that emerges is how male-dominated this whole scene is. Women are there, but very under-represented in key kitchen positions. Mostly they are seen serving at table or making up rooms of the inn (which Michel's daughter, however, runs). Conversations between Michel and customers are man-to-man; any women customers are observers, or just put in a word here and there as the men do the talking. But they talk politely. We see a strong hand, but no tyranny, abuse of underlings or substance, no tirades. Everyone is dedicatedly at work. Professionalism reigns, which is impressive, and suits Wildman's focus on social organisms. But only Michel Troisgros gets enough attention to seem colorful, eating too much of a new dish while repeating the same thing over and over, striving to explain his ideas to American customers and finding his English falls short of the task.

That key fact about Troigros and nouvelle cuisine you will find if you look up the restaurant elsewhere. You will not get it from Wiseman's film. He relies rather heavily here on people explaining things - the farmers describing their methods, the tour guide in the cheese ripening plant, Michel Troigros talking about himself and his sons to customers. It's through the latter that we learn the main current restaurant, known as Le Bois sans feuilles (The Wood Without Leaves), dates only from six years ago, and is in the country, replacing the old one in town - a big shift in style, look, and experience. The look of the new place, more casual than formerly, without white linen, with big windows opening up to landscape and grazing animals, resembles that of the Bras family, and may show its influence.

Watching this film after Paul Lacoste's one can see that Troigros is more "conventional" in serving up lots of meat and fish of many varieties. We learn it departs from old style French cooking in such things as Japanese influence (pioneers in that, Michel Troigros says), use of hot spices and passion fruit. But what distinguishes the Troigros style doesn't emerge. This is a film that has a lot to give us, but still leaves us hungry - as fancy restaurants themselves do.

Menus Plaisirs-Les Troigros, 240 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 3, 2023, also shown at Toronto, followed by New York. It was screened for this review as part of the NYFF, where it had its US premiere Oct. 7 and 9, with Q&As with Frederick Wiseman. US theatrical release Nov. 22, earlier screenings at Film Forum, Nov. 7, with Wiseman Q&A; Nov. 14. Metacritic rating: 88%.

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