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  • Ravi Swami

"La Grande Bouffe", Dir: Marco Ferreri, 1973

I watched Marco Ferrari's 1973 film "La Grande Bouffe" (Eng: "The Blow-Out", though it translates more correctly as "The Big Feast") and after previously having read the brief synopsis and deciding to give it a wide berth - was I ready for a film about 4 men who decide to eat themselves to death and indulge in various acts of debauchery over a weekend ?

The film received a FIPRESCI International Film Critics award at Cannes in 1973 even though it was not initially well-received and has acquired something of a reputation over time, which, having watched it, is somewhat justified but only because of the shock value of seeing actors like Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Ugo Tognazzi appear in soft-core sex scenes - these can feel gratuitous, as is the treatment of women but then it's a film very much of its' time.

My overall impression is of a grotesque cartoon, a Rabelaisian satire on bourgeois excess and attitudes to women, in the latter case very much of its' time as the 4 men satiate every appetite they can think of and this aspect is illustrated in the posters above.

Thankfully it never quite descends into cruelty and the endless consumption amounts to self-inflicted torture that is uncomfortable to watch in the knowledge of the inevitable outcome.

The film opens with "Ugo" (Tognazzi, and in a similar fashion the other characters take their first name from real life), the owner of a Paris restaurant called "Biscuit Soup" who is leaving for a long weekend away with friends Philippe (Noiret), Marcello (Mastroianni) and Michel (Piccoli) for an unspecified reason.

Noiret ("Cinema Paradiso") plays a magistrate who lives with his over-protective childhood nanny Nicole who exploits him for her own sexual needs to the extent that he has never had a normal relationship with women.

Marcello is a womanizing airline pilot on leave and Michel is an effete TV producer taking a break from a busy schedule.

The 4 men meet and drive to a beautifully furnished but crumbling villa in the city owned by Philippe with the intention of literally eating themselves to death, supervised by Ugo, the only chef in the group who has ordered vast quantities of meat, fruit and vegetables for the purpose.

Their intentions beyond simply engorging themselves with Ugo's gourmet cuisine is made clear on the first evening as they watch a slideshow of vintage pornography whilst eating, and soon after the priapic Marcello, who declares that he must have sex at least once a day, insists they post an advertisement for some young ladies - meaning prostitutes - to join them for an evening of dining at their expense.

One morning they see a group of school children being taken on a tour of the seemingly empty grounds of the property by their teacher Andrea, a woman who bears a resemblance to Philippe's buxom nanny / housekeeper Nicole though attractive and a lot younger, and she is invited by the men to join them for the evening, which she accepts. Philippe apologizes for the presence of the prostitutes but she doesn't appear too concerned and in fact is quite accepting.

Philippe, the magistrate, due to his inhibitions and sense of moral rectitude is not eager to follow the example of his friends where the prostitutes are concerned but when his trouser fly button comes off and Andrea offers to sew it back on, he is reminded of Nicole, his childhood nanny, and instantly proposes marriage to her on the spot, much to the delight of his friends. However, Andrea proves to be as sexually voracious as the Philippe's friends and pursues each one in turn while also enthusiastically joining in with the endless consumption of food, much to Philippe's chagrin.

The prostitutes soon find it hard to keep up with the endless eating and they leave the 4 men and Andrea to continue their binge as the food being offered by Ugo becomes increasingly elaborate and calorific. Michel begins to suffer from excessive wind due the effects of over-indulgence and this results in some comedic moments as he goes outside to relieve himself.

Meanwhile Marcello has found an old Bugatti racing car in need of attention in the garage and proceeds to try and get it going again, simultaneously using the garage to rendezvous with the prostitutes and Andrea, and of course, to continue eating.

As the 4 men gradually succumb to their carnal appetites, Michel is the first to go as he literally farts himself to death and they drag his body into an empty room adjacent to the kitchen. Marcello decides that he has had enough and in a fit of rage kicks a toilet bowl which explodes, flooding a room and covering him raw human sewage. He storms outside into the wintery night and tries to drive away in the restored Bugatti but is discovered frozen to death in the morning, and again his body is brought into a room adjacent to the kitchen next to that of Michel's.

Ugo, Philippe and Andrea continue their cooking and eating unconcerned as the two corpses of their friends watch from the adjacent rooms, resulting in a grotesque tableaux.

Ugo's eventual death from over-eating is perhaps the most disturbing in the film as he lies prostrate on the kitchen table while Philippe shovels "foie gras" into his mouth while Andrea pleasures him.

This leaves Andrea and Philippe to continue and the next morning she brings a platter containing an elaborate dessert shaped like women's breasts to Philippe as he sits in the garden ruefully reflecting on the previous few days. She begins to spoon-feed him in a scene reminiscent of a scene at the start of the film where his nanny Nicole spoon-feeds fruit to him in the morning, and he promptly dies in her arms.

Andrea, now the only survivor of the few days of excess, leaves, as a van turns up to deliver yet more carcasses of meat.

To be honest the only disturbing aspect of the film is the over-eating, something that made me think about my own eating habits and relationship to food, and at one point Philippe's character asks Michel to imagine that he is a starving child in Bombay as he struggles to down spoonfuls of mashed potato, a detail that underlines the films' commentary on excess in more developed countries.

The scenes of sexual excess are on the level of 70's "Euro Porn" and are not especially explicit or outside of normal sexual activity that you might see in a film, especially from Europe where a degree of nudity was the norm in films from the 1950's onward, it's just the shock value of seeing actors like Mastroianni in such scenes, but then this is a film that is a satire with black comedy and the literary works of Rabelais and Chaucer feature such scenes - although women are treated as simply something to be consumed alongside food by the men it never descends to sadistic levels of cruelty and the film draws parallels between haute cuisine and the molding of women into objects of desire by men.

My final impression is of a gross-out black comedy in the style of an earlier era of satirical cartoons and reminded me of a 1951 Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoon, "Chow Hound", where the closing scene echoes the grotesque death of Ugo for a similar comic effect.

"La Grande Bouffe", Dir: Marco Ferrari, 1973

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