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Gorging on the gluttonous “La Grande Bouffe”

Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi) feeds pâté to a bedridden Michel (Michel Piccoli) while Philippe (Philippe Noiret) observes them and eats his own serving of pâté.
Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi) feeds pâté to a bedridden Michel (Michel Piccoli) while Philippe (Philippe Noiret) observes them and eats his own serving of pâté.

Marco Ferreri’s absurdist Italian satire screens in a new DCP restoration at UW Cinematheque on July 29.

A TV producer, a pilot, a chef, and a judge walk into a remote country villa where there are meat delivery trucks already waiting in the yard. They receive shipments of wild boar, two “superb deers with soft eyes,” three bay trees, 10 dozen guinea fowls, three dozen Ardennes cockerels, a dozen chickens, some cod, a hindquarter of beef, five lambs, an unspecified number of pigs, and truckload of vegetables to compliment the six ducks, five geese, and four turkeys lounging in the yard. The four gentlemen aren’t hosting a party so much as a gluttonous marathon. All this setup serves only the grimmest possible punchline, in which these four will eat themselves to death. The setup is somewhere between The Aristocrats and “Twelve Days Of Christmas,” but only works as a joke if you can accept death as the ultimate punchline. This particularly dark premise gets played out in La Grande Bouffe [The Big Feast] (1973), playing at UW Cinematheque on Friday, July 29, at 7 p.m. 

The four principal characters share names with their actors—Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli, and Phillipe Noiret each bring a little bit of their preexisting screen personalities to their roles in La Grande Bouffe. In between showing off pictures of stewardesses he’s bedded, international smooth operator Marcello argues that if he’s not able to fuck during the course of their weekend, he might not be able to see it through until the end. The other three acquiesce and let him bring in prostitutes (Solange Blondeau, Florence Giorgetti, and Monique Chaumette) to accompany them in their decadence.

The last—and arguably most essential—member of the feast arrives by chance: local school teacher Andrea (Andréa Ferréol), who knocks on the door and asks to show her students a tree in the yard where some medieval devotional poetry was composed. She accepts the four men’s invitation to return that evening and join in the engorgement. Andrea’s appetites prove to be more in line with the four men, as she sticks with them long after the other three women vomit up the rich food and take off, offering any kind of encouragement she can. Whether it’s verbal, sexual, or culinary assistance, she wants to help the four men not chicken out on their morbid goal. Perhaps Andrea sees the inherent childishness of the ritual that the men have agreed upon with secular anti-mystical intent, reminding them of the rules of their own game. 

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As for why they want to kill themselves in this decadently expensive and communal way, and how the idea was agreed upon, the movie offers no explanation. Any would be beside the point. Everyone is given a few broad characteristics—Marcello is horny and mechanically inclined, Michel is somewhat timid and prone to intestinal distress, Ugo is a chef obsessed with creating the richest dishes, and Phillipe is the melancholy and meditative judge. 

Fittingly, this particular UW Cinematheque screening will kick off with the 1951 Looney Tunes short, Chow Hound. La Grande Bouffe director and co-writer Marco Ferreri indeed cites Looney Tunes animator Tex Avery as an influence, and his characters are easier to stomach when considered as something akin to cartoons. They are all in some position of power and influence, but feel no responsibility toward anything except their own appetites. Michel succinctly summarizes their collective philosophy: “All except food is epiphenomenon.” In other words, only food is real, only what is consumed is real. And maybe, if you want to stretch it, body is reality.

Ferreri insisted that he did not intend to send an anti-consumerist message with the film, going as far as to shout down a reporter who asked a question about that at a press conference after the Cannes premiere in May of 1973. He instead counter-argued that the film is ecological, and resented any neat and easy interpretation of his work. Nevertheless, the film is intended to be provocative if nothing else. It inspired walkouts at the aforementioned premiere and was subject to a number of lawsuits by moral crusaders in the UK who tried to prevent it from being shown. Mastroianni’s partner at the time, Catherine Deneuve, reportedly didn’t speak to him for a week after seeing it.

Ironically deployed quotes from Shakespeare and the book of Ecclesiastes hold equal space in La Grande Bouffe with minute-long farts, exploding toilets, and lazy orgies with participants too full to really exert themselves. The connection between sex and food has been explored many times, including in Tampopo (1985) and in season nine of Seinfeld with George Costanza’s bedside sandwich. But fewer dare to draw a direct line between food, sex, and death. Ferreri perhaps blazed a path later followed by Peter Greenaway’s 1989 satire The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover (Ferréol even starred in his 1985 film A Zed And Two Noughts) as well as recently in Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet (2022).

While one could argue this film is a mirror image of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, released within the same year, replacing constant interruptions that prevent dinner from being served with dinner course after dinner course here, Ferreri disliked being compared to Buñuel simply because he felt his films as a whole didn’t have much in common with those of the Spanish director. These particular members of the bourgeoisie have given up any pretension of discretion or charm, anyways.

The film’s score boasts some effective minimalism, as it’s completely diegetic and consists of only one song—a theme composed especially for the movie by Philippe Sarde that is first played on a 7-inch record, then played on piano, and sung by the characters throughout the movie. It’s a minor key tune that somehow conveys the characters’ satisfaction in being doomed, even if it’s by their own hand. That might be a good summation of the film as a whole: outrageous, disgusting, provocative, anti-social, but underneath it all, just a little bit sad.

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