Frederick Wiseman’s transporting documentary “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros,” centers on a dynasty of French chefs who live and work in a pastoral region in central France named Ouches, some 65 miles west of Lyon. There, amid rolling green hills and under the canopy of a century-old oak, the Troisgros family has a celebrated restaurant whose beginnings date back to 1930. The current paterfamilias, Michel, who’s in his mid-60s, has been cooking his whole life, and while you could say he makes food, it feels more like an expression of love.
Making food sounds too pedestrian for the meticulously prepared, strikingly plated dishes that come out of the kitchen at their restaurant, Le Bois Sans Feuilles (The Woods Without Leaves), and certainly this is cooking on a rarefied level. It has long been acclaimed, receiving its first Michelin star in 1956 and holding on to its third since 1968. (It’s gone through several iterations and name changes.) Michel’s father and uncle, Pierre and Jean, were widely considered to be nouvelle cuisine pioneers, emblematized by a famous salmon and sorrel dish they invented. The chef Daniel Boulud includes the Troisgros salmon recipe in several of his cookbooks.
“Menus-Plaisirs” is Wiseman’s 44th documentary and the first that he’s made since “City Hall” (2020), which notionally focuses on the administration building for the city of Boston. (In between “City Hall” and “Menus-Plaisirs,” he made one of his rare forays into fiction, “A Couple,” about Sophia Tolstoy.) Wiseman’s great subject are institutions, though more rightly the tension between organizations — with their spaces, norms and rituals — and the people moving through them. The bluntly descriptive titles of his movies are an authorial signature (“Hospital,” “High School,” “Boxing Gym”) and suggestively and purposely generic; one of the profound satisfactions of his work is seeing how he turns the general into the specific.
Wiseman directed, edited and served as one of the producers on “Menus-Plaisirs,” which runs a heroic four hours (about a half-hour shorter than “City Hall”!). It’s absorbing from start to finish. Much of it takes place inside the bright, nature-inspired Le Bois Sans Feuilles, which is part of a larger complex set in a mid-19th-century estate that the family restored a few years back and includes a boutique hotel overseen by Michel’s wife, Marie-Pierre. Wiseman also pops into another Troisgrois restaurant, Le Central, in the neighboring city of Roanne, making a more leisurely visit to a third, the nearby La Colline du Colombier, which is in the countryside.
Wiseman’s approach is analytical and dialectical, and only seemingly straightforward. As is customary with his movies, “Menus-Plaisirs” doesn’t have music, voice-over narration, onscreen descriptive text, chapter titles or any other standard hand-holding. Wiseman instead uses images of specific physical spaces — the movie opens on the Roanne railway station and then cuts to its bustling, sumptuously stocked farmer’s market — that immediately establish a strong sense of place. In other words, he grounds you in the world of the movie and then, face by face, shot by shot, scene by scene, steadily fills in its details.
The movie is arranged in distinct sections that suggest the rhythms of running a restaurant. The inaugural segment (call it Prep) introduces Michel and his sons: César, who cooks alongside his father and some dozen others at Le Bois Sans Feuilles, and the younger Léo, the chef for La Colline du Colombier. The sons run into each other at the market, where they’re hunting and pecking among the perfectly arranged leafy greens, bouquets of beets and radishes, and astonishing clusters of oyster mushrooms. In this section, the sons also meet with Michel to discuss menu options, and then the movie shifts to Le Bois Sans Feuilles.
It’s there in this restaurant’s spacious, quietly humming open kitchen that the movie begins to gather momentum as Wiseman moves about focusing on one and then another station: One chef expertly filets a large salmon while another trims and butchers some ribs. Elsewhere, Michel and a sommelier discuss some outrageously priced Burgundies, and a brigade of servers ready themselves for the fast-approaching service. “Menus-Plaisirs” has all the virtues of a Wiseman movie, but its focus on beautiful food that’s prepared and served with equal beauty makes it especially seductive, even if you’re not keen on everything on the menu. I now know, for instance, more than I ever cared to about cooking veal brains.
Once the customers arrive (call this section Service), the rhythms of the kitchen appreciably accelerate. Anyone who’s ever watched great cooks in action (in life or on TV) knows how enjoyable, even hypnotic it can be watching people with superb craft and technique at work, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Wiseman is sensitive to the sights and sounds of kitchens, including the tempos of chopping knives and the syncopated hiss and burble of pots on a hot stove. He also underscores the hard work on an individual level and when the chefs are in the flow together. These kitchens thrum with quiet intensity, not ego.
As “Menus-Plaisirs” continues, its focus widens as the chefs meet with some of their providers — at a small cattle farm, a vineyard, a cheese cave — where the mutual respect is palpable and the talk is sincere and often turns to sustainability. Each of these interludes could be spun off into a separate documentary, but together they expand the prismatic portrait of a family for whom cooking is an aesthetic, a passion, an expression of love, an ethic. There’s individual genius in the Troisgros kitchens, no doubt, but also enormous collaborative effort, which makes the documentary a nice metaphor for filmmaking itself. “Everything is beautiful,” a visibly moved Michel says of his estate; the same holds true of this deeply pleasurable movie.
Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 4 hours. In theaters.