I Watched It So You Don't Have To: La Grande Bouffe
You know when France thinks it's a controversial movie you're in for a real ride. That's not a dig on the French but, I mean c'mon, the stuff France thinks is scandalous is usually pretty darn out there. So it was with a degree of intrigue and trepidation that I sought out Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe (1973) – which to my amusement is currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime.
The movie follows four men as they each say goodbye to their jobs and families, hideaway in a villa, hire a handful of prostitutes and set off to do what they came there to do: screw and eat themselves to death. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. First we have Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi) who is a top chef stuck in a loveless marriage, then Philippe (Philippe Noiret), a magistrate who lives with his parents and has a creepy sexual relationship with his once nanny, next it's a divorced television producer named Michel (Michel Piccoli) who's bored with his life, and finally Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a womanizing sex-obsessed airline pilot. It's a regular Who's Who of French and Italian Everyman and Cool Guy film stars.
The four of them arrive at Philippe's somewhat decaying and empty family villa, which has been fully stocked with an excessive amount of every type of food imaginable – from meat to seafood to vegetables to desserts. They also all agree that dying with food and each other alone is far too boring, and decide to hire prostitutes to come join them later that night. As they're shoving vast quantities of food in their mouthes, a school teacher named Andrea (Andréa Ferréol) knocks on the door asking if she can bring her class into the villa grounds. She wants to point out a particular tree in the yard that the satirical French poet Boileau supposedly used to sit under. They welcome her and her class of young children in and feed all of them at their table. Philippe, who is quite smitten with Andrea, invites her to come back that night too as his personal guest. Then they proceed to literally eat and screw themselves to death.
The metaphor here is fairly blunt; these four men are a reflection of Ferreri's disgust with modern day bourgeois capitalism. So selfish and corrupt by excess are these men, they would rather indulge themselves until they die instead of exercising any self control in any way. The fact that they're all so willing to die for this level of indulgence is also lampooned. None of their lives are particularly awful; their sufferings are all shown as petty, driven primarily by boredom and ego. After we watch them indulge in every possible way for two hours, they all then die in fittingly comedic and pathetic ways; Marcello freezes to death in a snow storm while desperately trying to escape the villa in a Bugatti that won't start up, Michel's bowels rupture spectacularly, Ugo dies laying on his back while being force-fed his own pâté palace, and diabetic Philippe dies from over indulging in pudding shaped like two giant boobs. As each man dies, his body gets shoved in the cold storage room for safe keeping. They die as they lived, without dignity.
Then there is the sweet and nurturing school teacher, Andrea, who is as guilty of over indulgence as the men are. Though she’s a guest at their villa, and therefore at the mercy of what's ordered and offered, it doesn't take her long to begin using these four fools for her own pleasures and indulgences. She becomes the embodiment of the madonna-whore complex; swapping between her matronly role as a giving caretaker, to that of a dominantly sexual force. Not only is she the last person standing, but she's actively and lovingly shown helping each man to their death. Where as they pursue suicide she as the enabler, essentially becomes their murderer.
So where does La Grande Bouffe fall on the grand scale of IWISYDHT films? Considering this movie won the International Critics' Prize at Cannes, I've got to level with you guys, I found it just too disgustingly raunchy. It's the type of movie I neither want to rewatch, nor ever need to. In a world of grotesque horror and war movies it's certainly not the most explicit thing I've ever watched, but La Grande Bouffe is disgusting in another way: it's a movie that drags out all of the worst qualities in humanity and society, mixes them with our most base and unpleasant bodily functions, and then wallows in them all like pigs in shit. (And not even "like," because this movie literally splashes its characters around in shit.)
On one hand, in concept La Grande Bouffe is sort of great. There is something smugly gratifying in watching all of these well-to-do men openly acting like the monsters they truly are. And every time the movie got super disgusting, it always cut through with something so thrououghly ridiculous you couldn’t help but laugh – anything from a particularly on-point Marlon Brando impersonation, some truly ridiculous food concoctions, the steadily increasing amount of stray dogs that appear as the film goes on, or the inevitable scatalogical comeuppances of said indulgences. AKA there’s a whole bunch of fart and shit jokes. I mean, Michel Piccoli basically dies from farting too hard, so that’s about the quality of joke we got here... Why beat around the bush?
Speaking of bushes, while I could handle the fart jokes, La Grand Bouffe unfortunately sort of lost me with its sexual indulgences. Watching four middle aged men act like pigs is still just that, and it’s off putting to have to watch their glee as they grab and grope everything. I get that these scenes all lead up to the point of the film, and symbolically I get it, but in practice I can’t say I cared for having to endure it. It felt unnecessary and empty apart from its outrageousness. As these men indulge in their freedom from the shackles of society, shame and boundaries, the satirical aspect slowly shrinks as it's replaced by a more celebratory atmosphere. It's exactly there that La Grand Bouffe starts to lose its own message. At a certain point the movie feels more like a “what a way to go!” male fantasy than a sort of shaming point about economics.
Andrea is another place where La Grand Bouffe’s message feels muddled. While initially the only relatable character, she's quickly dissolves into this mixture of the smothering mother stereotype, the loose sexpot and the overweight glutton all at once. She's initially an innocent seeker of art who is quickly corrupt by money and indulgence, helping to lead these men to their death with her kindness. She feels more like a dartboard of Ferreri's hangups than like a human being. While Andrea is shown as enjoying herself throughout the film, she's also on the receiving end of a lot of abuse in the film. One particularly low point being after Marcello violently denounces her as "too fat" and "too ugly to fuck,” because of his own problems with impotence. It also seems obnoxious to cast a larger woman in this role as if to imply her body shape reveals some negative truth about her character. But then again, in the context of seeing her through the eyes of these awful men it's not exactly surprising that it comes up.
As a woman under the age of 60, I'm not the target audience for this movie. I do think some older men should be forced to watch this though; If you're offended, it's because it's about you, and if you're just disgusted, welcome to the rest of the population.