AKA The Big Feast; Blow-Out
“If you don’t eat, you won’t die.”–Ugo, La Grande Bouffe
DIRECTED BY: Marco Ferreri
PLOT: Four middle-aged, upper middle-class men (a judge, a TV personality, a pilot and a chef) hole up at a country villa to feast; it is gradually and casually revealed that they plan on eating themselves to death. They gorge themselves constantly, but the pilot can’t stand to go even for a day without sex, so prostitutes are invited to join them—along with a schoolteacher who attaches herself to the group willingly. As the gluttonous orgy continues the whores flee in disgust, but the teacher joins in the bacchanalia with gusto.
- All of the main actors use their real names. All four of the male stars were well-established (Mastroianni, of course, was an international star and sex symbol). Except for Noiret, each had worked with director Ferreri before. Each had also had prominent roles in weird films from other European directors (Mastrioanni, most famously, in Federico Fellini films, but Noiret appeared in Zazie dans le Metro for Louis Malle, Piccoli was a mainstay in Buñuel movies, and Tognazzi had small roles in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and Fellini’s Satyricon). The quartet would reunite with the director the next year for a surrealist rendering of Custer’s last stand called Don’t Touch the White Woman (starring alongside another weird favorite, Catherine Deneuve).
- The scatological content of the film scandalized some viewers at Cannes, but the film nonetheless won a FIPRESCI prize for Ferreri.
- At its British showings La Grande Bouffe was protested by infamous decency crusader Mary Whitehouse; her attempts to have the movie banned ironically led to modification of the Obscene Publications Act to exempt films with artistic merit.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The visions that will probably stick with you when you think back on La Grande Bouffe are scenes of four great European actors stuffing their faces with turkey legs, a castle made out of pâtés, and a pair of matching cakes shaped like breasts. Michel Piccoli dancing with a pig’s head is another strong candidate, as are the numerous gross scatological moments. But, the strangest and most lingering image may be the final one: sides of meat scattered around the villa lawn—a slab of beef wedged in the crook of a tree—and a pack of dogs sitting and looking attentively at the carcasses, making no move to eat.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: La Grande Bouffe takes an absurd premise—four men decide to eat
Brief scene from La Grande Bouffe
themselves to death—and plays it out with illogical realism, proffering no explanations or motives for what happens. It’s an unnatural but straight-faced parable that suggests nothing about how we’re supposed to take it. It’s a grotesque spectacle, but a strangely engrossing one, with a fascination that comes largely thanks to a dream cast of 1970s Euroweirdos.
COMMENTS: In the course of their Grande Bouffe, the four suicidal gourmands scarf down oysters, kidneys for breakfast, crusty baguettes, cakes, quail served on skull skewers, turkey legs (convenient for gnawing on during sexual congress), a suckling pig roasted over a spit in the garden, Provencal pizza, steaming bowls of tortellini with cream and mushrooms, crepes doused in Cointreau, brioche dipped in milk, and a three-poultry pâté molded into a Faberge-egg cathedral, among other delicacies. The quartet (later quintet) nosh at all moments: in the bedroom, while picking out a tune on the piano, while taking schoolchildren on a tour of the grounds (a poet of local renown once lived there). In the beginning the mouthwatering spread may make your tummy rumble, but even before the gluttonous consequences—Michel’s flatulence, the exploding toilet— show up on screen, you may start to lose your appetite, as you imagine the men forcing all that food down their throats despite being stuffed full to bursting. As they get near the end of their blowout, each succeeding bite becomes a painful trial. Just look at poor sick Michel’s face as he lies on the bed, straining to swallow a spoonful of chestnut purée as his friends goad him on, telling him it’s a question of will and advising him to imagine himself as a starving child in Bombay.
One of the reasons La Grande Bouffe fascinates, even though not much really happens in the film, is because the men have chosen such an appealingly appalling form of suicide. If we have to die (and we do), why not go out with a banquet of food and sex, in an orgy of pleasure? The feast is at the same time tempting and revolting. In our daily food lives we restrain ourselves because we know the downside of overindulgence—indigestion, nausea, vomiting—but these men keep going at it, as difficult as it becomes. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy for us to vicariously experience their hedonistic excesses; we aren’t given a free ride, though, because Ferreri makes sure we pay a price for our vicarious delight by giving us vicarious revulsion, too. We get an eyeful (and earful, thanks to the most egregious farting soundtrack ever attached to an arthouse film) of the result of that food after it passes through the debauchees digestive systems. The mixture of lust and disgust demonstrated here is the essence of decadence, simultaneously attractive and repellent.
In researching opinions on La Grand Bouffe, I lost track of the number of times viewers either confessed they did not get what Ferreri was getting at, or scolded him for giving no explanation for the men’s desire to eat themselves to death. Because the raw spectacle here is so hard to get a handle on, so unlike what we see in ordinary narratives, people constantly look for a reference point to compare it to. The most obvious influence is Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), where the guests at a dinner party find themselves unable to leave (in what may be an explicit Angel nod, Marcello gets disgusted and in fact tries, but fails, to exit the feast). Distancing surrealism is not on the menu in Bouffe, however. The scandalous scatology and perverse sensibilities made some see it as a precursor to the 1975 shocker Salò, but the comparisons don’t go very far. Salò is rife with sadism and cruelty, which is noticeably absent in the genial La Grande Bouffe; all the debauchery is scrupulously consensual, there are no victims anywhere to be found. Bouffe shares many similarities with Peter Greenaway‘s The Thief, the Cook, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), although in that banquet there again is a layer of stylization and allegory standing between us and the material, which is missing in the Ferreri’s unvarnished film. The movie that Bouffe most resembles may be Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995), where Nicolas Cage steadfastly drinks himself to death, for reasons he’s forgotten, as faithful whore Elisabeth Shue takes care of him in his final days.
Shue’s Vegas hooker may have been the illegitimate cinematic daughter of Bouffe‘s Andréa Ferréol, who plays a similarly nonjudgmental caretaker to the four suicidal epicures. Andréa, a zaftig schoolmarm whose eyes light up at the idea of days on end of continuous eating and fornicating, may be this feast’s most interesting and troublesome character. She’s also a surprise co-star, holding her own against the four male acting titans. The five thespians hold the inherently implausible scenario together; there’s a real feeling of camaraderie between the four men, who seem to have known each other for decades, and the Rubenesque Ferréol convincingly worms her way into the pal’s hearts and beds as a party guest who immediately clicks with the assembly. Tognazzi, who plays the chef, was the least distinguished of the crew coming in to this film and exits with the same reputation, although he has a featured moment doing a Marlon Brando impression. Piccoli shows more depth; it’s slowly revealed that he’s a closet musician and philosopher, and probably secretly in love with Mastrioanni’s character as well. Speaking of Marcello, he has the most fun here, playing off his image as a ladies’ man. In Bouffe he’s ridiculously insatiable, insisting the party expand its roster to include three or four prostitutes because he’s unable to go half a day without sex. He’s also the only one of the foursome to show misgivings about the pact, which are apparent almost from the beginning (watch how, in the space of a second, his face goes from apprehension to bemused resolution after he announces “the feast begins!”)
Along with Ferréol, Noiret emerges as the most fascinating character, and despite his often passive personality he is in fact the movie’s driving force. A judge and the apparent ringleader of the cadre, he’s decidedly odd in his stiff mannerisms and his ironic concern with propriety (he insists on storing a fallen comrade in a meat locker rather than interring him because “the illegal burial of corpses is highly reprehensible.”) He has a twisted sexual backstory that makes it entirely appropriate for his final meal to be a cake in the shape of ripe bosoms. He stands awkwardly at attention, staring straight ahead like a guard at Buckingham palace, on the two occasions where women service him. He’s repressed and droll, and where the other three men in some sense seem to “regular guys,” Phillipe is “off” by quite a bit, the kind of citizen who’s respectable on the outside but who you would not be shocked to find out is secretly a stalker, sex addict or serial killer. He falls in love with Andréa immediately after she shows him just a bit of attention and asks her to marry him. He persists in his ardor despite the fact that she insists on having regular intercourse with the rest of the company, often as Phillipe lies in the same bed. For her part, Andréa seems to return his affections, even though she seems to be more sexually attracted to everyone else at the party, and despite the fact that she knows he’s soon to depart this world. They make for a strange couple indeed.
As weird as Phillipe is, Andréa remains the most interesting and troubling character because she breaks the movie’s template. The four men are all representatives of the bourgeoisie, the bored and decadent upper middle class. For them to enter into a pact to eat themselves to death seems like the type of simple satirical stab at that strata of society that leftist filmmakers were required to take to retain their credibility. But Andréa is a schoolteacher, presumably a virtuous member of the hardworking proletariat, and she proves as gluttonous and oversexed as the men—actually, more so. She forces the movie to widen its lend to accommodate her, making it more a portrait of humanity’s failings then an attack focused on a particular class. Some reviewers even criticized the inclusion of her character as destructive of the satire, but that’s only the case if you’re convinced going in that the movie should be a satire of the bourgeoisie. Ferreri doesn’t force that view upon us. He deliberately gives us no explanations, and none are needed. It’s obvious, predictable, and comfortable to read the movie as an attack on bourgeois consumerism. But perhaps that’s not the point at all. Perhaps the film is deliberately intended to be as senseless as life itself: you’re born, you eat, and you die.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the satire is implicit, and the action is strangely devoid of content, comedic or otherwise… a quiet and observant screed, a cousin to Pasolini’s ‘Salò’… laying waste to modern man and refusing to tell us how to feel about the process.”–Michael Atkinson, IFC.com (DVD)
IMDB LINK: The Big Feast (1973)
DVD INFO: The 2009 Koch Lorber DVD (buy) contains no extras other than a five-minute excerpt from the documentary The Director Who Came from the Future discussing the film and the scandalized reaction to it.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Irene,” who called it a “wonderful and quite bizarre movie… a kind of a modern burlesque, a farce reminding me of the Luis Buñuel films…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)