Reviewed today: Foe, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros.
11.30am: Foe [trailer]
It’s forty years into the future, and the world is buggered, just like we knew it was going to be. There’s a plan to move people off the dying earth and into space, but some people are happy enough just staying where they are: such as Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal), living on a barely-functioning farm out in the Midwest. 'Happy' may be too strong a word, though, as there’s a definite distance growing between the couple. But then one day the mysterious Terrance (Aaron Pierre) drives up out of nowhere with a proposition: Junior is being given the chance to be one of the first people to test out a new facility in space. This will mean he has to abandon Hen for a couple of years: but Terrance has a proposition for that, too.
A chunk of high concept sci-fi that’s largely made up of three people trapped together in a single building, Foe does a decent job of teasing out its various possible plotlines for most of its running time. Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal, the most Irish Midwesterners you could find, do fine work depicting almost incomprehensible emotions, and director Garth Davis keeps it all moving along nicely. It's all a bit Black Mirror-ish, but without Charlie Brooker's determination to make things as grim as possible.
Where it all comes apart a bit is in the ending. Once we get to the point where we discover what type of film we've actually been watching, there's a sudden assumption that the audience is incredibly thick, as we're slowly walked through several explanatory scenes: the final story beat, which could have been a lovely moment of ambiguity, gets hammered home at least three times too many. The BBG thinks that the ending's been heavily reworked after audience previews, and that feels like what's happened here. The rest of the film seems happy to let you work things out at your own place, and it’s a sad failure of nerve to stop doing that right at the end.
6.30pm: Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros [trailer]
One week into the festival, and I feel comfortable enough to reveal that we’ve been trying to get our various meal breaks to tie in with the films we’re seeing, or at least the countries they were made in. Macario? A burrito from the Wahaca truck on the Southbank. Only The River Flows? Chinese buns from Bun House. The Klezmer Project? Argentinian empanadas from the stall by Charing Cross station. You get the idea. Our main film today is a documentary about a French restaurant with three Michelin stars, so... well, there’s only so far you can go with a plan like this without breaking the bank, so we make do with just having a really nice lunch at Lasdun in the National Theatre.
We need as much sustenance as we can lay out hands on, because Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros is a Frederick Wiseman joint, so we’re going to be looking at the inside of that restaurant for a good 240 minutes. Or so I thought: actually, it turns out to be a little more complicated than that. Michel Troisgros is the patriarch of a French fine dining dynasty, and co-runs the Troisgros restaurant in Roanne with his son César. The first couple of hours follow what’s presented as a single lunch service at the place: from the purchase of vegetables at a morning market, through the meetings with suppliers, the planning of menus, the briefing of staff, the preparation of food and the actual business of serving it to what they refer to as ‘clients’.
Given that there are two separate TV shows out there at the moment showing fine dining kitchens as being run entirely on substance abuse and yelling, it’s fascinating to see what a well-oiled machine the real thing is. It’s all hushed concentration, with very little of the micromanagement that we’ve come to expect from our telly head chefs. The one bit of conflict we get to see is when one chef gets quietly rebuked for not preparing brains properly. (Having said that, there’s an anti-workplace bullying talk given to staff at one point, asking them to be careful about the language they use to each other, with the unspoken subtext of ‘...because there’s an old guy running around filming everything.’)
If the film stopped after they brought out the cheeseboard, it’d be the length of a normal documentary and perfect. But it doesn’t: instead, we spend a couple more days with the family. We hang out with César’s brother Léo, who runs Troisgros’ more casual sister restaurant, as well as its fancy burger van on Sundays: see Michel meeting up with a few more of his preferred suppliers: and finish up with a dinner service which turns out to be a little more fraught than the lunch, but which includes a couple of conversations with clients which conveniently fill in some gaps in the Troisgros backstory.
The second half of the film is still enjoyable, it’s just that the change in structure acts as a speed bump to the viewer. As ever with Wiseman, though, you never feel like you’re watching a four hour film. His camera blends into the background to capture a host of telling moments, and his storytelling skills are evident in the way he edits them together, with the confidence to have entire conversations play out in a single take. If you’re a fan of fancy food, this is four hours of sheer pornography: but if you’re not, there’s enough entertainment to be had from watching the dynamics of a workplace and a family. And you’ll learn stuff, too: ‘bleed your brains out before blanching them’ is going to be my key takeaway from this.