Volume 119: Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troigros / Rose / Hayseed
The Voice of Energy Vol. 119
This feels pretty good, right? Three weeks in a row with a newsletter from me? Not bad, eh?
Forgive me as I indulge in a little back-patting about how I'm keeping up with this even as I juggle a half-dozen other writing projects and trying to keep a record store alive.
Somehow, though, I carved out enough time to check out the films that I've reviewed for you this week. I hope you enjoy reading them.
Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troigros (2023, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
Whenever Frederick Wiseman's camera is hovering in the kitchen of one of the high-end eateries that are the focus of his latest documentary, he keeps returning to the faces of the chefs preparing the food. Shot in profile, their expressions are of absolute concentration as they expertly fillet a John Dory or place a single strand of saffron atop a bite of food.
It's not an uncommon shot in Wiseman's documentaries, all of which have focused on a place and the people who work or live within it. It's reflective of his own steady gaze. Like the cooks who are seen preparing seemingly simple dishes of asparagus with shaved bits of rhubarb and an almond puree, his lens doesn't often move or break from a given subject. And, as the editor of his own films, Wiseman knows exactly where to place each shot and scene.
For example, even though we have spent four hours in the company of the owners and staff of La Maison Troisgros and La Colline du Colombier, two restaurants nearby one another and both owned by the famous Troisgros family, it's only until the very end that we get the complete picture of how these restaurants came to be. The closing scene finds head chef Michel Troigros holding court at a table and relaying the history of the family business. Some viewers might take that as a reward for making it all the way to the end of this documentary, but as it is paced and structured to mirror a day in the life of these establishments, it felt more like Michel taking a relaxed victory lap around the dining room at the end of a long day.
Those moments of chatting up the (as the subtitles refer to them) clients feel especially rewarding coming as they do after the only moments of drama in the film. Towards the end, Michel's frustration at how certain items are being prepared — in these cases, chicken livers and snails — comes lightly bubbling to the surface. After determining that the livers are too spicy (even as he fully cleans his plate), he takes it upon himself to prepare a batch in the kitchen to show the staff how it should be done. It's not done with aggression or anger, but, just as with an earlier scene where he and another chef reference a cook book on the proper preparation of calf's brains, an opportunity to educate his young team.
La Maison Troisgros and La Colline, the latter of which is overseen by Michel's son Léo, are truly remarkable in that way. Having been reared on a diet of Kitchen Nightmares, MasterChef, and The Bear, it is startling to experience the quiet of those kitchens. The head chefs are soft-spoken and thoughtful, and in turn, their crew are willing to own up to mistakes, experiment, and learn from these acclaimed restaurateurs.
As with most Wiseman docs, his cameras don't just stick to what's going on in the kitchen or dining room. There's a touching focus through the middle part of the film on where these restaurants get their food and wine from. And in each of these outside businesses, whether its a vineyard or a goat farm that produces soft cheeses or, in one truly fascinating segment, a place dedicated to aging cheeses, the owners talks about their work and their stewardship of the land and animals with such care and compassion that it's almost forgivable how much they are charging for, say, a single bottle of wine (up to five figures in some instances).
Wiseman doesn't moralize in this, or really any of his films. He remains a neutral observer throughout. It's a stance that can be a tad frustrating when realizing how inaccessible the price of a meal at these restaurants are to the average person. There is no sight of any dishwashers or cleaning staff at these restaurants and only minor appearances by the men who are dutifully washing cheeses at the aging plant.
Expand that out and realize that that's the cloud hovering over Wiseman's long and extraordinary career. The audience for his documentaries are much like the folks who inhabit La Maison Troisgros: well-meaning liberal white folk who have the luxury of being able to carve out four hours from their days to spend watching an unhurried film about a three star French restaurant. I fall right under that umbrella, and I'll happily admit that I found this documentary as engrossing as anything else I've seen this year. I don't blame you one bit if you don't have the stomach for it.
Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troigros has its U.S. theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday November 22.
Hayseed (2023, dir. Travis Burgess)
I take no small amount of pleasure in knowing that low stakes, low budget films like this are still being made today. And I get justifiably rankled at how much movies like this tend to get snowed over in the algorithm. Loose, breezy whodunits like Hayseed don't stand a chance in the streaming era.
Consider this my recommendation to track it down once it hits VOD services this coming Tuesday. The debut feature by filmmaker Travis Burgess is ideal for the post-Thanksgiving afterglow with its playful dialogue and gently knotted up plot.
For longstanding devotees of independent cinema, the draw might simply be the lead performance of Bill Sage, an actor best known for his work with Hal Hartley (or, if you'd rather, the pilot episode of Sex & the City). Here, he plays Leo Hobbins, a rumpled insurance investigator who arrives at a small Michigan town to look into the apparent suicide of the local minister (Peter Carey). His concern, at first, is sussing out why, just before his death, the good reverend named a young member of his church staff (Caitlin Carver) as the beneficiary of his will. Hobbins, a former Detroit cop, suspects foul play and opts to stick around and do some digging.
Your mind may already be at work filling in the blanks for this plot, and I have no doubt you're going to come at least close to the bullseye. Burgess doesn't seem interested in reinventing the murder mystery or even poking fun at the denizens of this Rust Belt community. He succeeds at his task of making a clean, fuss-free film that is given a nice lift by the fine acting work of his ensemble. Everyone, from director to bit player, settles into their roles with comfort and ease.
Hayseed hits VOD services on Tuesday November 21. It also screens at Village East by Angelika in New York City on that same day.
Rose (2022, dir. Niels Arden Oplev)
The portrayal of mental illness or disability on screen has, by and large, been reduced to a batch of showy tics and freakouts aimed at festival judges and Oscar voters. While there's been a welcome tidal shift in this regard, it unfortunately still feels refreshing to see how tenderly the subject is treated in a film like the Danish drama Rose.
Inger (played by Sofie Gråbøl), a woman living with schizophrenia, is taken out of her care facility for a week to go on a guided bus tour of France with sister Ellen (Lene Maria Christensen) and brother-in-law Vagn (Anders W. Berthelsen). The couple are as empathetic as anyone about Inger's struggles, doing their best to adjust their sleeping arrangements and itineraries to make the trip as smooth as possible. For her part, Inger seems entirely aware of how people perceive her, withdrawing more when she's treated like a burden by Skelbæk, a gruff member of the traveling group (Søorn Malling, whom you may remember from his work as Torben Friis in Borgen), but has little control over her broken brain to be able to keep her unwanted thoughts and occasional lashing out in check.
The beauty of the film is how unshowy it is about, well, everything. Gråbøl's performance is perfectly pitched. She never delves into the bloviating freak outs ideal for award show clips nor does she aim for quirk. She portrays Inger's struggles and moments of clarity with deft understatement and complete empathy. Writer / director Niels Arden Oplev (the filmmaker responsible for the original adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the 2017 remake of Flatliners) also pays heed to the emotional weight that caring for someone with Inger's issues can have on a loved one. More than once, Ellen loses her cool, unable to deal with her sister's needs and stubbornness.
Though it may not have been his intention, Oplev crafted a kind of litmus test for people living in our modern world. What sort of person do we want to be when faced with someone dealing with a small or large mental health crisis? The gentleness with which everyone from the trip's driver / tour guide exhibits toward Inger nor the warm acceptance of Skelbæk's son need not be anomalous nor relegated to Danish melodramas doomed to limited release in the U.S.
Rose is now playing in select theaters.
Elsewhere, you can check out my interview with Erasure's Vince Clarke about his unexpected solo career, and check out my long gestating story about the struggles and closure of Portland's lone jazz club, The 1905. Back again next week (!!) with reviews of a newly released restoration of Victor Sjöström's The Scarlet Letter and the quirky documentary Mister Organ.
Artwork for this edition is from Fourth Act – Quilombismo: Documents of a Pan-Africanist Militancy, an exhibition of the work of Abdias Nascimento on display at Instituto Inhotim's Mata Gallery.
his newsletter was written on the unceded land where once stood the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River creating communities and summer encampments to harvest and use the plentiful natural resources of the area.