The European arthouse movie, since the 50s at least, has been generally seen in opposition to Hollywood. Instead of relying on cartoonish genre, broad comedy and loud, violent action, it supposedly offers analysis, detail, character, critique, context, civilised intelligence. Crudely put, Hollywood appeals to the senses, European films to the mind.
LA GRANDE BOUFFE is an almost archetypally European movie - a Franco-Italian co-production, directed by a noted auteur, Marco Ferreri, and starring arguably the three greatest of all European actors, Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli and Phillipe Noiret. It features allusions to philosophy, art history and literature, and is confined, Bunuel-like, to the single set of a decaying town mansion. It is also about four middle-aged men stuffing themselves to death, blocking toilets until they messily explode, and, er, breaking wind.
Ferreri treats his theme of excess - food, sex, self-pity - with an almost Oriental restraint, matching lengthy, static long shots so dense with detail and so darkly lit that it's often difficult to make anything out, to extreme close-ups, pitilessly exposing yet also strangely moving: a bit like Ozu filming Fellini.
It's hard to know how to recommend this film - and I do, very strongly. Four professionals - a cook, a pilot, a TV producer and a judge - convene at the latter's unused mansion to spend a weekend non-stop eating a prodigiously elaborate feast made from the choicest meats: many prospective meals are walking about in the garden.
We gradually learn that they have come here to die, but Marcello is unable to continue without sex, so they hire some prostitutes, as well as inviting a local, seemingly innocent, teacher, who is soon revealed to have appetites equal to any of the men. And so the men eat. And eat. And eat. They sometimes have sex, watch antique 'erotic' slides, drive cars, get sick. But mostly they eat. They even have competitions to see who can eat the fastest.
This, ironically, does not sound very appetising for the viewer. There is no narrative drive for instance - any conflict possibly brought by the pure, innocent Andrea, a symbol of life in an atmosphere of decay, to whom Phillipe proposes marriage, are quickly dashed by her own taste for depravity. The men decide to die, and we watch them do it. The film begins with a methodical introduction to all four characters, and ends as methodically picking each one off.
So what is the film about? Is it an allegory - a group of fairly representative French bourgeois gathered in a knackered mansion with a sparse, dying garden, might suggest so. But an allegory of what? The decline of French masculinity, patriarchy, capitalism? The judge and TV producer especially are examples of the most powerful, potentially corrupting forces in Western society, the law and the media. The women all escape and survive, although the closing shot of Andrea returning to the home is highly ambiguous.
BOUFFE is very Bunuellian, from the EXTERMINATING ANGEL-like idea of bourgeoisie trapped in a mansion (figured in the inability of Marcello to leave in his sportscar, doomed to drive up and down the avenue), to the profusion of animals, observing the men's descent into bestiality, as they grunt and hoot and growl, and become fatal slaves to their appetites. Is it a study in decadence - there are many shots framed like grotesque parodies of Renaissance paintings; that optimistic project is flatulently shot here. There are allusions made to both Boileau - the father of French neo-classicism - and Brillat-Savarin, whose Physiognomy of Taste is a famous combination of philosophy and gastronomy which the four men take to nihilistic limits. Is it a death knell of film, as the parody of Don Corleone suggests, as four old men watch slides like a corruption of early cinema?
I don't know. But for me the pleasures were many. The home itself, stuffed with so much bric-a-brac you can barely make out the characters. The fragmentary motifs returning in the coolly formal style - the replaying of certain scenes and shots; the repetition of the inchoate, beautiful, yearning tango music, which is connected to one character but shifts as he becomes a ghost. The museum of the dead culminating in the extraordinary, triangular shot of the sprawled Ugo, with Marcello and Michel behind him. The limitless, ingenious, grotesque variations on sex and food. The gross comedy. The genius compositions. The colours. The sight of three actors who have starred in some of the 20th century's supreme artistic achievements running from faecal rivers, and putting the rump back into rumpo.
La Grande Bouffe
Comedy / Drama
La Grande Bouffe
Comedy / Drama
Four middle-aged friends and members of the professional bourgeoisie, Ugo, a chef and restaurant owner, Marcello, an incorrigible womanizer and Alitalia pilot, Michel, a delicate television producer, and Philippe, a venerable magistrate, gather for a debaucherous weekend at the latter's Parisian villa. There, as the four men prepare for a Romanesque feast, truckloads of fine food and wine arrive, accompanied by three elegant and lithe prostitutes. Without a doubt, the rapacious and degraded hedonists are determined to eat themselves to death, one elaborate morsel after another, nevertheless, for what reason?
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