Upon the release of his 44th documentary ‘Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros,’ Document curates a list of the filmmaker’s most provocative portraits
Frederick Wiseman is no fly on the wall. He’s known to reject the passive documentary modes of “cinéma vérité,” “observational cinema” and “direct cinema” often ascribed to his medium. Yet he does love a meeting: nearly every one of Wiseman’s 44 films include at least one scene that takes place within a boardroom, church, office, town hall, or staff gathering. The politics and poetics of a given institution are always on full display. In this way, Wiseman’s documentary style is an art of both showing and telling. The director is a keen narrator as if just off screen, watching. His perceptive gaze illuminates power structures at play—noting each nod, head tilt, and eye roll in the room’s response.
At 94 years old, the documentary filmmaker’s oeuvre has explored just about every cultural institution, from niche worlds—Zoo, a 1993 romp about Miami’s Metro Zoo and Crazy Horse, a spectacle of a 2011 Parisian nightclub—to the American welfare system (Welfare, 1975). Wiseman’s latest, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros—which he counts as tangential to his series on institutions—is his first food documentary, and as some speculate, his final work. Throughout the film’s four hours, Wiseman turns his gaze to the day-to-day inner workings of the Troisgros restaurant, a patrilineal, three Michelin star restaurant located in central France.
Entropy is the driving force in the director’s work. Wiseman’s camera doesn’t incite action, nor does it seek it out. His editing procedure—in which he famously watches every second of the hundred-plus hours of footage gathered and cuts down himself—doesn’t center action. Even he doesn’t know exactly what it is he’s looking for. For Wiseman,“the shooting is the research.” Themes and messages in his films arise over time—often as if by magic. It’s a slow cinema.
On a damp Saturday afternoon during the desolate days between Christmas and New Year’s in New York, I expected to walk into a sparse Film Forum theater for a screening of Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros—left emptier after the four-hour long film concluded. Instead, the room was packed from start to finish.
As his latest project leaves theaters, Document offers a list of Wiseman’s most provocative portraits.
Titicut Follies (1967)
Wiseman’s first foray into filmmaking, Titicut Follies is an uncompromising, Kafka-esque look inside the Bridgewater State Hospital’s facility for the criminally insane. Shortly following its release, the film was banned from public audiences for almost 25 years. It cuts between haunting scenes of the male patients being washed, forcefed, interrogated, and repeatedly herded back into their cells as their conditions progressively worsen. Throughout the film, Wiseman weaves in forlorn footage of inmates performing at the hospital’s annual music show. Nothing reflects a broken system more strikingly than the ending scene; a funeral of one of the patients whom the film followed closely.
High School (1968)
The hormonal tensions of late adolescence collide with the stressors of both the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements of the late ’60s at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School. Constant detention sentences and scoldings from teachers contradict their rhetoric that the future is “up to students,” a sentiment pushed by authority and opposed by the imminent danger and destruction beyond the school’s walls. The future is uncertain, let alone promised. This small town high school becomes—as Wiseman does so perfectly in so many of his films—a snapshot of late ’60s America as a whole.
The Store (1983)
With the holidays in the distant rearview, this film is particularly timely. Taking place in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas at a Dallas Neiman-Marcus store and its corporate headquarters, The Store is a venture into the canonically corporate aesthetic of the ’80s. What is often regarded as a superficial tenet of American consumerism is rendered a complex system made up of intricate parts and players. The motif of escalators and elevators throughout the film symbolizes the itching post-recession desire for luxury and upward mobility, of which the department store was the mecca.
Among a repertoire that often places a focus on the banal, Wiseman’s portrait of the American Ballet Theater in New York stands out as one of his most sublime films. In some ways most similar to Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, Ballet is a stunning depiction of the refined art of movement and the behind the scenes production and fundraising for one of America’s most rigorous dance institutes. The way the film is edited emphasizes the tedious repetition involved in rehearsal, but the breathtaking beauty of the onstage performances proves that practice really does make perfect.
Belfast, Maine (1999)
A sweet, yet somber portrait of life within the small portside town of Belfast, Maine, and the blue collar businesses and constituents that reside in it. Through Wiseman’s lens, Belfast appears to be a microcosmic town where time seems to stand still, impervious to the industrialization and urbanization occurring across the rest of the country. Yet the plagues of smoking and obesity among the town, along with scenes of care for the elderly remind us that life is fleeting—even in Belfast.
Central Park (1989)
A portrait that celebrates the storied urban landmark and greenspace through a series of vignettes, which display park goers canoodling in Sheep’s Meadow, a couple getting married, concerts being held, ducks swimming in the pond, joggers, skaters, and several tender tributes to loved ones lost during the ever-present AIDS epidemic. Although this is one of Wiseman’s more visually-driven films, it wouldn’t be distinctly his if we didn’t get a look at the Central Park Conservancy’s meetings, which here concern funding and safety. There’s even a town hall that centers the debate over whether or not to tear down the 96th street tennis house. It is through all this that Wiseman captures Central Park as a beautiful, yet delicate ecosystem at the heart of the city, touching on wider issues of public access and gentrification.
Ex Libris (2017)
Whereas society is displayed on its worst behavior in many of Wiseman’s films, Ex Libris shows society largely at its best. It’s a fascinating portrait of the New York Public Library in flux—undergoing the transformation of its spaces from “passive repositories to education centers” amid rapid digitization and automation. What is most viscerally apparent in Ex Libris out of all of Wiseman’s films, is the unconditional, nonpartisan, and persistent passion to information literacy, access and education of those that work for the New York Public Library. Ironically, Wiseman’s films are only currently available via select New York Public Library branches on Kanopy. Ex Libris can be found here.
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros (2023)
According to Wiseman, all the drama of fictional comedies and tragedies exists in the real world, you just have to look more closely to find it—or, in his case, wait long enough for it to enter the picture. Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros (which translates to “the small pleasures of Troisgros”) contains the generational tensions of Succession with the heat of The Bear. The film follows one of three Troisgros restaurants, ‘Le Bois Sans Feuilles’ (The Woods Without Leaves), nestled in the pastoral countryside of Ouches, not far outside Lyon. Branches of oak and floor-to-ceiling glass windows encase the dining room and bustling kitchen, filled with perfectly level shining metal surfaces—a conscious design choice to maintain balance within the restaurant’s chain of command.
Across the cacophonous sounds of the kitchen and dining room mid-service (which Wiseman famously gathers himself), and captivating footage of cooking and plating, Wiseman renders the rhythm of the restaurant palpable—a feeling anyone who’s spent long enough in a busy dining room can identify. The slower moments are equally visually compelling—the visits to a local organic produce farm, a cattle ranch, a cheese cave, a vineyard, which could each themselves be a short film. These dreamy sequences feel like visions of an environmental utopia in which maybe we can have it all—good food, and a good future.
If Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros happens to be Wiseman’s last work, it might just be the perfect culmination of the director’s six-decade career. The storied subject of the film, as old as the director himself, serves as a testament to time—to the careful work that goes into creating an enduring legacy.