“Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros,” the latest film by legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman, details the inner workings of Le Bois sans Feuilles (The Forest Without Leaves), a three-star Michelin French restaurant that’s been operating for decades in Roanne, France, and its nearby resort. We eavesdrop on the chefs, the servers, and the customers. We also see the daily preparation of the complex dishes that make up the restaurant’s “pleasure menus.”
As with all of Wiseman’s films, none of the familiar and expected tools — such as narration or onscreen names — are here to assist. The 94-year-old director’s movies consist of unhurried scenes that require one’s full attention.
On the surface, it feels like you’re being left entirely to your own devices, but you’re not. Wiseman’s films may not explicitly map out directions, but that doesn’t mean you’re lost. Patterns emerge, and characters and locations become familiar enough to give us our bearings.
If you love food porn, this movie will satiate your appetite for visions of French food while providing much insight into how that food is prepared. After all, it’s four hours long, the perfect length for a rainy afternoon in the theater ogling caviar, escargot, and other delicacies. Your bladder may feel the runtime, but I assure you that your mind will remain so fully engaged that the time will fly by.
The price of a movie ticket is far cheaper than dinner at Le Bois sans Feuilles, which will run you at least 370 euros. When one diner is asked about any allergies he may have, he replies “the only allergy I have is to the bill.”
The meals look like they’re worth paying big bucks to consume, though scenes featuring the culinary preparations of brains and snails made me squirm, reminding me that perhaps my palate isn’t refined enough to make the trip to Roanne. Regardless, my love for movies about process was as attended to as the repeat customers who populate “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros.”
The title translates to “Pleasure menus — the Troisgros.” The Troisgros is the family that runs the restaurant. Chef Michel is the patriarch and César is the son who will probably take over when the time is right, though at first we’re not aware of this familial bond. Father and son cordially act as boss and employee.
Numerous scenes unfold with them testing, arguing about, and preparing the menus. Their choices are inspired by the food they buy at the open-air market outside Roanne station, as well as the season and the clientele. As a result, we get to partake in the entire culinary lifecycle of a food item, from its purchase to its preparation to its plating. Wiseman’s camera finds a good spot for observing all these details and plants itself there for minutes at a time.
This sounds dry on paper, but it’s never boring. There’s something both therapeutic and intimate about preparing a meal for someone, even if it’s a finicky American customer or a group of French diners who have different requirements and allergies. Like its chefs, “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” is aware of the beauty of presentation — how we eat with our eyes before bringing a bite to our lips — and each scene of preparation, with its precise chopping, tasting, and discussions about plating, could serve as a short film.
“It should be alive,” Michel says about the gold leaf atop a dish one of his chefs has prepared for that night’s meal. There are also debates about the potential scandal of using caviar in a dessert dish and the joys of almond puree. And we get to see all that glorious food, at times in close-ups so vivid you can almost smell the minced garlic and the funky French cheeses.
Growing up in the shadow of New York City, I’m not sure I’d want to deal with the pigeon gravy that accompanies one meal, but I constantly found myself in a state of fascination; I stared at the screen with eyes as big as saucers.
Dozens of chefs build the experience that keeps customers of Le Bois sans Feuilles coming back. “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” patiently takes us through the entire operation. And then, just like clockwork, the journey begins anew, with Wiseman’s camera there to record it all and present it to us on a silver platter of cinematic enjoyment.
MENUS-PLAISIRS — LES TROISGROS
Directed by Frederick Wiseman. In French, with subtitles. At Coolidge Corner. Unrated (if deliciousness got rated, this would get an R)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.