A menu is a living thing at any Michelin-starred restaurant — a script at the mercy of seasons, ingredients, personnel, and more — and a Michelin-starred restaurant is only as good as its ability to harness the relentless churn known to all living things into creative energy. That’s true of eateries that have only been awarded one pathetic star, and it’s perhaps three times as true for the likes of Le Bois sans Feuilles, which opened in 2017 and continued a tradition of three-star ratings that began with the head chef’s father more than 30 years ago — a run that spans multiple centuries, locations, and generations.
By the time that Frederick Wiseman decided to make it the subject of his latest documentary, Le Bois sans Feuilles (lit. “The Forest without Leaves”) was so consistently drawing its power from the flow of change that it had already become the haute cuisine equivalent of a water wheel, and that — more than anything about the food itself — seems to be what inspired the 93-year-old filmmaker to focus his lens on this French institution. For a counterintuitively unchanging legend who’s devoted his career to observing the relationship between continuity and evolution, a menu by Michel Troisgros is less appetizing for what’s on it than it is for how it got there, and what might replace it tomorrow. Most people leave a meal at Le Bois sans Feuilles with a full stomach and a few Instagrams; Wiseman went to the restaurant for lunch and came away, dozens of months later, with a four-hour miniature about an engine on the brink of a dramatic recalibration. Thank God some things always seem to stay the same.
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Billed as a “farm-to-table” documentary on account of its loose, semi-linear trajectory from the markets and vineyards of Roanne to the restaurant dining room in which they’re ultimately transformed into something much greater than the sum of their parts, Wiseman’s slow-cooked but satisfying “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” occupies a generous space between his sober portraits of American institutions (e.g. “At Berkeley,” “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”) and his more epicurean films about the French arts (e.g. “Crazy Horse,” “Ballet,” “La Comédie-Française ou l’Amour joué”). Its characteristic focus on the tension between tactile labor and abstract crises — between day-to-day upkeep and spiritual survival — is present from the opening moments, but so is its characteristic refusal to artificially define the contours of that tension.
The movie’s very first proper scene invites us to watch a long discussion between Michel and an employee about the latest minutia of the Le Bois sans Feuilles menu, but hours will pass before it’s made clear that said employee is Troisgros’ son and heir, César; and only in the dying moments of this mouth-watering documentary, some 235 minutes after it began, does Michel explicitly reflect on what it means for him to pass the torch.
In hindsight, of course, the passage of time — and its attendant anxieties — are baked into every sequence of Wiseman’s film, even the ones so detailed and discursive that they threaten to bring “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” to a standstill. That punny mouthful of a title translates to both “pleasure menu” and “tiny pleasures,” and this documentary honors both interpretations. The process of creating and refining and refining and refining what’s served at Le Bois sans Feuilles is broken down into a million little moments that are bursting with detail and flavor, even if sometimes more of the former than the latter. Want to know more about Michel’s father Jean-Baptiste? Google is at your fingertips. Curious as to why Michel’s two sons both decided to follow in his footsteps? I hope you’re not taking a pee break when the chef makes an errant comment about the effect of being raised by someone who loves what they do. Interested in the mating schedules of goats, the correct procedure of draining lamb brains, or the exact moment at which a murderously pungent cheese has to prove that it hasn’t gone bad? You’ve come to the right place.
Absent the drama inherent in so many of Wiseman’s best films about institutions in progress, these field trips beyond the grounds of Le Bois sans Feuilles can be dryer than any of the $15,000 bottles of wine that Michel and César serve at the restaurant. And yet, whenever the camera returns to the mad scientist-like kitchen or the eerily placid dining room just beyond its doors (where guests are arranged around a 100-year-old oak tree that make Le Bois sans Feuilles seem like both a part of the forest and a trick of the light), the eatery’s glass walls become a veritable prism through which the widespread energy of Troisgros’ staff is funneled into the stuff of a single bite.
James Bishop’s natural cinematography doesn’t make any effort to embellish the presentation of the food (there’s an Ozempic-like disconnect between the obvious quality of these dishes and the lack of drool Wiseman inspires from them), but there’s precious little cinema in watching someone else ooh and aah and orgasmically roll their eyes in response to flavor combinations that most of us can’t even imagine. “As my grandfather used to rightly say,” Michel insists, “cuisine is not the movies.”
And so “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” instead highlights the superhuman focus that feeds into each plate, and the breadth of the collaboration required to source, prepare, and serve it. Invention is the byproduct of a single idea, but attention is a way of life; despite withholding any explicit judgment (who is he to look down at someone taking pictures of their meal?), Wiseman feels palpably awed — or at least fascinated by — the almost utopian process by which so many people come together in the service of a fleeting sensation that has to be created anew every time.
It’s an experience that few artisans have the discipline to provide, and an experience that few patrons have the resources to afford. As several critics have already observed, and most viewers will note to themselves, the clientele at Le Bois sans Feuilles are (almost) exclusively white, exclusively wealthy, and exclusively the kind of people who need everyone within earshot to know they have a taste for the finer things in life. What sort of transcendence can there really be in catering to such privileged appetites? This film offers us no way of knowing whether Michel or César would rather be cooking for the common man (Michel in particular seems happy to cater to his regulars), but Wiseman’s previous work suggests that he would explore such class tensions if they felt relevant to his portrait of the restaurant.
We’ve been conditioned to be sensitive to such things at the expense of subtler flavors (in part because of broad satires like “The Menu,” which is this movie’s antithesis in every way), but I’m tempted to think that Wiseman is less interested in the elitism served at Le Bois sans Feuilles — or any Michelin-starred establishment — than he is in the dedication required to enjoy it. We live in a world that has foisted mediocrity upon the masses and weaponized our hostility toward anything better, and that attitude is as much of a threat to the Troisgros family’s art as a bad vintage of grapes or a lamb brain that’s still dripping with blood. Just because I can’t afford a meal at Le Bois sans Feuilles doesn’t mean I want to live in a world where Michel Troisgros doesn’t (calmly) go ballistic because one of his underlings fit a sub-optimal number of snails onto the same frying pan.
Everything about this restaurant — and this four-hour documentary about it — is an indulgence that caters to a select crowd, but the waning appetites of the market are no reason to forfeit the future to the enemies of good taste; not when institutions like Le Bois sans Feuilles and Frederick Wiseman refuse to accept that the inevitability of change is reason enough to surrender. During those last five minutes of “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros,” when Troisgros finally discusses the risk of opening Le Bois sans Feuilles and his fears of stepping aside, he reflects upon the realization that “the end was not the end.” It was, like all things, an opportunity for a new beginning. At that exact moment, as if on purpose but not really, a passer-by bumps into Wiseman’s typically static camera for a brief second before the shot is re-centered. Nothing is fixed, least of all the things we assume will last forever.
“Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” will open at Film Forum on Wednesday, November 22.
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