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September 2015

La Grande Bouffe

cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, Ugo Tognazzi, and Andrea Ferreol

director: Marco Ferreri

130 minutes (18) 1973
widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow Academy blu-ray region B

RATING: 6/10
review by J.C. Hartley

La Grande Bouffe

I remember reading a review of this, when it came out, and the little soupcon of controversy the film stirred up at the time. From that review I had an image of a great banquet of over-indulgence, the actors gorging on platters of rich food when they weren't fucking or vomiting. In actual fact, although the cast gorge on platters of rich food when they aren't preparing meals, or fucking, or suffering from the effects of over-indulgence, there is a stately progression to events, and it isn't quite the outrageous orgy it sounded to my 15-year-old self. That said, watching it now in all its restored glory, with however many meals, and however many incidences of food-inspired congress, I was eagerly anticipating the inevitable cardiac arrests that seemed destined to terminate the narrative.

There's an early mention of proto-surrealist author Raymond Roussel (Locus Solus, New Impressions Of Africa), and an obvious link is with Meret Oppenheim's controversial installation for the 1959 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, Cannibal Feast, which featured a nude model covered with food, laid out as for a banquet. Another reference might be to the work of Luis Bunuel; in one of the interviews, among the extras, director Ferreri, looking like a Trout Mask Replica era Captain Beefheart gone to seed, acknowledges a liking for the Spanish director, especially during his Mexican period, and the film Nazarin (1959) in particular, but he says he doesn't like being compared with him. Well, Bunuel is a lot funnier and his films don't overstay their welcome.

Ferreri's characters take their names from the actors playing them, which makes reviewing easier; all the male actors had worked with Ferreri before so they joined together for this with the apparent ease of a repertory company. We meet the characters preparing for a weekend away. Ugo is a restaurateur, and while he packs, his wife wants to know why he is taking his knives and his recipe books. Michel is a television producer; he has recorded a fortnight of shows and gives his daughter and her new boyfriend access to his apartment. Philippe is a judge, still living with Madeleine the nanny who wet-nursed him. She is convinced he is going to a brothel and, fearful of scandal, she masturbates him, as reassurance that she can cater for all his needs, as she has always done. Marcello is an airline pilot; he casts a final wistful glance around the interior of his plane, and then marshals the hostesses to carry his bags and a huge wheel of parmesan.

The four friends arrive at a mansion belonging to Philippe; it stands in its own grounds, with a vintage Bugatti in the garage. The house is looked after by the ancient chauffeur Hector. The friends choose their rooms, and then oversee the delivery of meat, and vegetables, and wine, and Ugo begins to cook, utilising the others as his assistants. They enjoy a meal of oysters while watching a slide-show of black and white daguerreotypes of naked women from Philippe's collection. Marcello has to fuck every night and does not see why they have to deny themselves the company of women; opinion is divided but it is agreed Marcello will find some prostitutes on the basis of an advertisement offering them fine dining.

A schoolchild visits, and asks if his class can enter the garden to view the linden tree where the poet Boileau used to rest for inspiration. Part of the class attend to the teacher while she tells them about Boileau, while others watch Michel catching fish in the pond, and the rest listen to Marcello in the garage telling them about the Bugatti. Afterwards Ugo feeds the class, and Andrea their teacher is invited for an evening meal. Philippe is worried that the teacher will be shocked by the presence of the prostitutes but is uncertain whether she will accept the invitation.

That evening Marcello returns with three girls, taking one to bed immediately, and Andrea turns up as well, seemingly unperturbed by her fellow guests. The party becomes raucous and Philippe is apologetic to Andrea, and he is uncomfortable because he realises his trousers are missing two buttons, Andrea offers to sew them on for him as she is a 'domestic angel'. Sewing the buttons on with Philippe still wearing his trousers, Andrea explores inside his trouser-fly, masturbating him in an identical scene to the one played out with Madeleine. Philippe asks Andrea to marry him.

The girls leave, made ill by the excess consumption, and complaining that all the men do is eat. They urge Andrea to leave with them but she says she intends to stay. The stage is now set for ever more elaborate repasts, the slow deterioration of the male protagonists and the inevitable conclusion. Michel, who is presented as slightly effeminate, with some stereotypical clues as to his potential bi-sexuality; a pink sweater, dance exercises at the barre, and a slightly aggressive attitude to the whores, suffers from trapped wind. Marcello palpates his stomach while Ugo feeds him puree (mashed potato), unleashing a trumpet voluntary.

However, when Philippe feels ill and takes to Marcello's bed, followed by Andrea and Michel, Andrea relieves Michel's problem by mounting and fucking him while he lets off. The four practice communal living and Philippe expresses his intention of marrying Andrea no matter who she sleeps with. Marcello becomes impotent and attempts to leave in the Bugatti during a snowstorm, freezing to death in the cold. Michel, who may have harboured feelings for Marcello, is the next to go with a heart attack. Ugo creates a masterpiece with three rich poultry pates, when Andrea and Philippe decline to eat it, Ugo says he will eat it all himself. As Philippe pops morsels into the recumbent Ugo's mouth Andrea gives him a hand job, as he comes, he goes.

In the final act, Andrea, whom Ugo has been teaching to cook, presents the diabetic Philippe with two gigantic blancmanges in the shape of her breasts, he consumes them and expires. When more meat arrives in a delivery van, Andrea tells them to put it in the garden and goes into the house alone; curiously the pack of dogs which has assembled over the course of the movie, howling each death, don't seem interested in the carcases.

Well, a satire on consumerism and conspicuous consumption then? Well, no apparently; in a rowdy panel interview from Cannes, included as part of the extras, Ferreri denies labelling the film as anti-consumerism as that would make it an 'ecological' film. Elsewhere he describes the film as 'physiological', about man's needs, or as a film about male friendship. We do not know why the men eat themselves to death; we presume they are bored with life. Life is not a farce says Ferreri in a small interview about film comedy; hope is a farce (I don't remember what life is). One of his favourite films is an early Sylvester and Tweetie-Pie short; it's perhaps the most engaging thing about him. It has to be said Ferreri's film isn't very funny, except when Michel Piccoli farts, which is always good for a laugh. In another interview filmed around Cannes, a particularly fatuous journalist asks the actors Piccoli, Tognazzi, and Noiret, to identify their caricatured behinds from a cartoon film poster, Mastroianni must have been forewarned as he is absent. The poster is rather deceptive as the actual scene depicted is when Ugo uses Andrea's naked arse to personalise an elaborate tart he is baking. The journalist continues, despite Piccoli and Noiret's thoughtful analysis of the film, to pursue his own agenda, asking Piccoli if he provided his own farts, and asking the actors to hum Philippe Sarde's evocative score. Tognazzi and Ferreri remain mute throughout.

Among the other extras, in quite a generous package, is a behind-the-scenes location shoot and interviews, selected scene commentaries, and an exclusive film shot for Arrow from May 2015, with Pasquale Iannone introducing Ferreri's career and placing him in the context of Italian cinema. Iannone says that Ferreri has described himself as 50 percent misogynist and 50 percent feminist, and both attitudes are on display here, the women are largely presented as uncomplicated sex-objects but they are easier to like than the men, and liking can still count for a lot. My own view of the film isn't that it's about consumerism, or male friendship, it's about four men - and perhaps men in general - who, despite their societal standing, are trapped in an infantile oral, anal, genital stage and, unable to balance that exterior status and public persona with their interior psychology, give in to the sort of need for indulgence where you eat until you shit your pants, symbolically speaking (although Michel does do just that). I don't know what it is about foreign food, you can sit down and eat for two hours but you still end up feeling unsatisfied.

The film is too long. There is no back-story apart from the opening introduction to the characters. We do not know why they are friends, and we do not know the source of their ennui. Perhaps the film was more immediate in 1973? The rowdiness of the late-1960s had abated and life for the bourgeoisie seemed stale as two-day old brioche? Airline pilot, restaurateur, TV producer, and judge, hardly seem a typical presentation of French manhood, except in art-house movies perhaps? I can see how this film might have appalled UK audiences, only 20 years past rationing we had conventional ideas about food and sex.

That said, French films were a byword for 'foreign muck' and in a British landscape where the only celebrity chefs were Fanny Craddock, and Graham Kerr 'The Galloping Gourmet', attitudes to food were equally constrained. La Grande Bouffe makes the oyster supper with a hint of incest from Tom Jones (1963) look like a Carry On sequence with Sid James and Joan Sims, and arguably the link between food, sex and death, wouldn't be made by a British film-maker until Greenaway in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover (1989).

All the performances are good but it's hard to feel much affection for the male leads. The whores are a cheerful crew, force-fed at times, fucked with an engine manifold (thankfully consensual), vomiting, and growing bored with the men's single-minded deliberation on self-extinction. Their attitude to life, to eat well and then stop and have some fun, has a lot to be said for it. Andrea Ferreol is wonderful, and her subsequent long career is evidence of her talent even if her courageous and unflinching performance here isn't, which it is. In a role that offers no place to hide she is totally unselfconscious, and in a film with a lot of un-arousing coupling her sex scenes are the only ones with a bit of frisson. From an un-credited role in Fred Zinnemann's The Day Of The Jackal the same year as La Grande Bouffe, she made a host of films in France, as well as appearing in Fassbinder's Despair (1978), The Tin Drum (1979), A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), and Sam Fuller's Street Of No Return (1989) among many more; she continues to work into 2016.

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