La Grande Bouffe is about four rich, aging European men who gather in a French villa and proceed to eat, fuck, eat, fart, fuck, and eat. Not to mention eat. And eat. And fuck. And fart. And eat. The film effectively eases us into its infamously epic depictions of culinary, carnal debaucheries with a long, slow burn of an opening. Initially, the friends, who share the names of the actors playing them (Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli, and Phillipe Noiret), are merely indulgent in a manner we stereotypically associate with the bored bourgeoisie of typically Franco-Italian farce. They look good, or at least memorable, in a certain ironically glamorous, gone-to-seed fashion, buy impressive things, lecture their indifferent daughters and wives, and wax rhapsodic about wines and the elaborate seasonings to use for pork, fowl, and beef bourguignon. There’s something a little “off” even in these early scenes, such as the neurotic, infantilizing sexual relationship Phillipe clearly has with his childhood nurse, but these men strike us as relatively conventional pretentious pigs.
Preparation for the great, titular feeding, which includes the arrival of truckloads of food intended to sustain only four adults for two theoretical days, encompasses much of the film’s first act. Director Marco Ferreri can’t be accused of exhibiting much subtlety, but he hits one surreally graceful note of escalation: The stocking of goods, the kneading of dough, and the wandering about the villa segue gradually into the feasting, and it takes one a while to discern that the consumption is never-ending. It sneaks up on you. The great buffet commences, at first, in dribs and drabs, immediately understood to be explicitly confused with the protagonists’ sexual drives. Marcello, Ugo, and Phillipe look at a slideshow of vintage pornography while slurping down oysters. Michel stretches out his body in tights, bracing himself for the weekend in his room upstairs. At the start, they dine on and off, casually, as if on a regular holiday. Then, prostitutes arrive, at Marcello’s insistence, and the eating hits a wave that never crests. The men and women stuff their greasy faces, the sound of their chewing mercilessly amplified as they tear meat from an endless variety of bones (often in close-ups) or cut open pizza, tarts, puree, or pȃté that’s so immensely sculpted as to resemble a huge wedding cake.
Ferreri puts the viewer through a version of the same wringer into which he grinds his characters, and our reactions are remarkably in sync with theirs: The revelers’ initial delight with their buffet parallels our brief interest in watching icons behave like unhinged primates, but when they (the characters as well as, seemingly, the actors) hit a wall, so do we. It’s draining to even witness gluttony on this scale, and one reaches the limit of their tolerance for these shenanigans somewhere near the halfway point of the film, but there’s still over an hour to go, the coup de grȃce eventually arriving in the form of sequences of extreme shitting and farting.
A funny thing about the orgasmic flatulence scenes, which render the famous moment in Blazing Saddles dainty by comparison: They provide the viewer with palpable relief, serving as a reprieve of sorts from the gastrointestinal orgy. Ferreri vividly captures the least savory intersections between eating and sex—namely, the diminishment of feeling that comes with the obsessive, self-hating repetition of either act, which encourages even more extreme indulgences so as to recapture increasingly fleeting sensations. The men cumulatively lose any sense of individuality that they may have initially projected, receding into a cluttered, uncomfortable framework of unsated desire that’s complemented, and embodied, by the suffocating bric-a-brac within the villa. Yet, and this is really why the film’s so controversial, the men’s hungers are informed with a sense of authentic, guttural vitality that prevents the narrative from turning into a comfortable anti-avarice screed. La Grande Bouffe rings with social chaos, as one feels that these characters are knocking on the doors of something primordially forbidden—the pain of their prodigious consumption registering as an attempt, in the rattles of despair, to feel something, anything.
It’s fair and inevitable to wonder what the point of this film is exactly, but there pointedly isn’t one, apart from dramatizing a relentless, ecstatic plunge toward emotional and physical desolation. La Grande Bouffe scans most coherently as a reaction to the films of Luis Buñuel (to whom Ferreri was frequently compared, and to his reported frustration), a controversial artist and filmmaker who was, by the 1970s, revered as a critical darling, a fashioner of parables of the bourgeoisie that the bourgeoisie themselves appreciated. By this point, it had grown “safe” to patronize Buñuel’s brand of subversion. Ferreri’s attempting to rip the varnish off the “Buñuel film,” and to make it obscene again, and in this aim he’s an unparalleled success. Ferreri isn’t Buñuel’s peer in terms of the sophistication of his jokes or the polish of his formality, but this bluntness is intentional. There’s little satirical orientation in La Grande Bouffe, beyond its catchall parody of entitlement. A viewer can’t safeguard themselves from the extremity of Ferreri’s nihilism by clinging to what his film is “about,” and this is the director’s most startling achievement.
Flesh tones are a little vague and grainy, and there are occasionally glare issues with the whites, but the general earthy softness of the image scans as being probably representative of the source materials, as well as appropriate to the film’s seamy atmosphere. This image isn’t pristine, and it doesn’t appear to be entirely "restored," and that feels right. Arrow has fluidly retained the film’s illegitimate vitality. Most other colors are conventionally vibrant too, particularly the reds, blues, and greens, and certain exterior shots indicate Ferreri’s ability to fashion gorgeous images when he wants to (the film’s pervasive aesthetic, often studiously unaffected, is subtler than many of Ferreri’s contemporary critics allowed). The soundtrack is unambiguously terrific, balancing bluntness (the loud eating and fornicating) with nuances (the intricately varied sonic textures of said eating and fornicating, such as the sucking sounds that accompany the consumption of marrow, or the ruffling of bed sheets).
The 1973-era featurettes are welcome for the sake of historic posterity, but they’re awfully dry and superficial, including, most disappointingly, the piece that offers footage of the film’s stormy Cannes reception. The "gets" in this package are Pasquale Iannone’s select-scene audio commentary and video essay, which collectively provide a succinct, informative overview of Marco Ferreri’s work leading up to La Grande Bouffe, and of his various prior collaborations with the film’s leading men. These pieces also elaborate compellingly on the fashions in which many iconic European film careers intersected, including those of Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, and Catherine Deneuve, to name but a few. (Ferreri’s also said to have described his work as physiological, rather than thematic, which is as apt a description of La Grande Bouffe’s concerns as any that anyone is likely to offer.) Portions of this supplements package are fascinating, but one wishes for just a pinch more, perhaps a full commentary with Iannone. The new writing by Johnny Mains, available in a booklet that’s illustrated with gorgeously disturbing new artwork, provides a graceful, elegant capper though.
Another benchmark of quasi-satirical "endurance" cinema has been re-restored for home video, presumably for a new generation of thrill-seeking cinephiles. Let the debate and revulsion begin anew.