La Grande Bouffe, 1973.
Directed by Marco Ferreri.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Phillipe Noiret, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli and Andrea Ferreol.
Four professional men retreat to a villa with the express aim of eating themselves to death…
The elegiac chaos of La Grande Bouffe – literally the big eat – created something of a storm at the 1973 Cannes festival, with self-confessed lover of jests Ferreri being forced to defend his work amidst an onslaught from local and international press. Reports that president of the jury Ingrid Bergman was sick while watching the film only went on to further immortalise its controversial nature.
While the sheer affront that many took to the film in 1973 looks rather old-fashioned now, the underlying principles at work still resonate today. In essence, the film is a pitch black comedy, examining in great detail precisely how four friends can go about eating themselves to death. Taking in the prime physiological impulses of mankind; food, drink and sex, Ferreri leaves us in no doubt that we are all part of the animal kingdom, no matter how prestigious our pay-packet or how luxurious the banqueting hall.
Taken on one level, La Grande Bouffe is simply a film about friendship; a European gross-out ‘bro movie’ complete with call-girls, loud farts, burps and truckloads of food and booze. While this show of filmic bravura is at the heart and belly of the piece, those looking for more can easily find it within the three rooms of the grand old villa.
As is ever the case, critics and scholars have looked into the workings of the film’s plot for a philosophical and political subtext. The fact that the four friends are all members of the professional bourgeoisie; an airplane pilot, a TV producer, a judge and a restaurant owner, suggests the true target of the piece. By the time a local schoolmistress joins them, the decadent fall of society is portrayed in glaring and provocative detail.
It is the prostitutes that the men hire to come over to the villa who seem to represent any hope for society. They have the sense to be repelled by the macabre feast, and get out of while they still can. Again, an academic seeking symbolism would offer the suggestion that they represent the working classes or possibly outsiders and artists.
So taken on another level, it is the consumerist nature of modern city life, with its devaluing of emotion and lack of awareness of reality that prevents any genuine connection to one’s own life. The equating of food and consumerism with death and the overriding bleakness of tone contrasts wildly with the childlike exuberance of the festivities on show, and points to the two sides of a jester’s work; to entertain and to point out the obvious. We are left to draw our own conclusions. But one that resounds is that middle class ennui and the desire to consume to death are by-products of modern lives and attitudes. And strangely enough, that’s a lot funnier than it sounds.
Arrow Films have put together a selection of features and extras for the restored Blu-ray release of La Grande Bouffe. These include a detailed booklet with original artwork and writing inspired by the film, interviews, visual essays and lively press coverage from Cannes 1973.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.