La Grande Bouffe (1973)

La Grande Bouffe first published by

Written in 1785, but not published until 1904, the Marquis de Sade’s notorious novel The 120 Days of Sodom became an instant cause célèbre for its sometimes moralising, sometimes glorifying depiction of four well-to-do middle-aged gentlemen enacting a four-month orgy of lust, perversion and murder upon an ensemble of abducted children. Although Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí certainly reimagined de Sade’s work in the climax to their bourgeois-baiting surrealist work L’Âge d’Or (1930), the novel, with its succession of unspeakable depravities, was essentially considered unfilmable – until 1975, when Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom transplanted the book’s actions to Italy in the last days of Mussolini’s fascism, but otherwise stayed shockingly, repellently true to de Sade’s now politically recharged vision. Yet two years before that, Pasolini’s compatriot Marco Ferreri made the contemporary Franco-Italian co-production La Grande Bouffe, which served as an appetiser of sorts to the unhinged outrages on the menu of Pasolini’s scandalous swansong. 

While La Grande Bouffe is by no means the same as The 120 Days of Sodom, it is clearly dining at a similar table. For here too, four ageing bourgeois libertines – the judge Philippe (Philippe Noiret), Alitalia pilot Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), chef and restaurateur Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi) and television producer Michel (Michel Piccoli) – go into retreat at a large house in the outer suburbs of Paris (rather than de Sade’s medieval castle) for what Philippe characterises as “a gastronomic seminar”. Truckloads of meat and produce are delivered so that this quartet can indulge their appetites in private, beyond the judging glare of the outside world. What starts as a purely food-focused orgy soon rouses other appetites and, at playboy Marcello’s insistence, they invite three prostitutes to join them, as well as the ampler, more respectable Andréa (Andréa Ferréol) who teaches at the school next door and who – much to Philippe’s surprise and delight – is in no way put off by the proceedings, whether prandial or priapic. Together, these four women correspond to the four brothel madams employed as mistresses-of-ceremonies by de Sade’s gentlemen – and while, in contrast with The 120 Days of Sodom, here no children are harmed and no faeces is eaten (something of a fixation in de Sade), school children do come over in one scene for afternoon tea, and Ferreri retains a focus on flatulence and defecation as he exposes all the ins and outs of luxurious gastronomy.

“You’re grotesque. Grotesque and disgusting. Why do you eat if you’re not hungry? It’s not possible. It can’t be hunger.” So declares one of the three prostitutes, horrified (and literally sickened) by the sheer quantities of food being gorged by all. Excess has always been at the heart of satire (a term which derives from the Latin word family for ‘full’ or ‘excessive’). Like the Cena Trimalchionis section of Petronius’ Satyrica (adapted by Federico Fellini as 1969’s Satyricon), La Grande Bouffe uses extended, seeming endless gourmet meals to satirise the insatiable consumerism of a middle class bounded only by its own mortality. For these four men have chosen to die as they live, wallowing in pleasure – and as their demises, expedited by all that excessive ingestion, begin to loom over the narrative, the big party assumes a desperate, melancholic air. The need for more and more – a symptom of western capitalism’s voracity – is shown here to be a terminal conditional.  

“You’re lucky you found a domestic fairy,” the buxom Andréa tells Philippe as she sews the buttons back onto his trousers, and then, while still on her knees, takes the opportunity to lean in and pleasure the judge where he stands. It remains a mystery exactly why these four men have decided to commit suicide – and in such a profligate manner – by eating themselves to death. Perhaps, though, the film’s greatest mystery is Andréa herself, a woman whose own appetites are more than a match for the all-male club of gourmands around her (“I’m hungry!” she exclaims, only in part as encouragement to the others as their own hungers flag). When the three prostitutes eventually leave, Andréa stays, moving into the men’s accommodation and bed, and offering each of them what they need. By mounting Michel, she simultaneously pleasures him sexually while voiding his belly of the gas that has uncomfortably accumulated there. By motoring, in deshabille, up and down the driveway with Marcello in the antique Bugatti that he has managed to get running, she fulfils his twinned obsessions with women and classic automobiles (in anther scene he uses the car’s manifold as a sex aid with one of the prostitutes). Helping Ugo out in more ways than one in the kitchen, Andréa combines his culinary and erotic tastes. And for Philippe, this big-breasted, matronly figure becomes the nurturing mother he lost when he was a child (Andréa even ultimately smothers him with symbolic jelly bosoms). 

Perhaps Andréa is a fairy after all – a mere fantasy figure designed to facilitate these four in achieving their happy endings.Yet she is also a necessary balancing force – a sole matriarch among society’s self-defeating patriarchs, a generous and giving presence where all her hosts can do is take, and an embodiment of everything that these rather pathetic men lack in their otherwise full-seeming lives. From between her joie de vivre and their strange sorrow, Ferreri extracts a rather rarefied bittersweet flavour for his film, complemented by exceptional performances all round. Plus, there are fart jokes – something it curiously has in common with Pasolini’s harder, more vicious take on de Sade. Meanwhile, Mastroianni, Piccoli, Noiret and Tognazzi do louche kidult masculinity to perfection.

Summary: Marco Ferreri’s art-fart satire of bourgeois patriarchal insatiability goes down nicely 

© Anton Bitel