Judge William Lee wants to know where's the beef in this infamous movie.
"That's good meat."
One of those infamous art house movies, La Grande Bouffe stirred controversy when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. It was released in the United States with an X rating then, which is equivalent to today's NC-17 label. Disappointingly, The Big Feast doesn't satisfy our contemporary appetite for shocking cinema and the content is less than filling.
Facts of the Case
Four middle-age friends—an airline pilot, a judge, a television producer and a chef—hole up in a Parisian villa for a giant feast. They hire some prostitutes to keep them company and invite the local schoolteacher as well. Once things get rolling, it's an endless parade of sex and food. The men's ultimate goal is to eat themselves to death.
I first read about La Grande Bouffe on a magazine's list of 100 must-see movies and the synopsis of the plot really caught my attention. Developing my gourmet tastes for foreign cinema at the time, I tried to watch anything that sounded unique. This impulse led me to discover many fine films and many great filmmakers. This same curiosity also prompted me to seek out notorious works like Pasolini's Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom and that was certainly not a positive viewing experience. Sometimes I wonder whether I need to see every movie with a reputation in order to maintain my film lover credibility? Would my perspective on movies be radically deficient if I hadn't seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or The Passion of the Christ? Strip away the high-minded excuses and I have to admit that I'm just looking for a thrill sometimes. When controversy surrounds a movie, I want to say: Go ahead and try to shock me.
To my surprise, I was not shocked by anything I saw in La Grande Bouffe. It starts off slowly but it isn't a dull movie. It's crudely humorous—never has an arty foreign film featured so much farting—and visually arresting. Perhaps the scenes of orgies and gluttony had a bigger impact on audiences in 1973. While those scenes are not family-friendly by any era's standard, they certainly won't upset today's viewers, provided they know what to expect in general.
Four heavyweights of European cinema—Marcello Mastroianni (Ginger and Fred), Philipe Noiret (Woman Times Seven), Michel Piccoli (Belle Toujours) and Ugo Tognazzi (Barbarella)—play the main characters, each taking the respective actor's first name. Vaguely defined, their personalities are distinguished from each other by body type, profession and designated busy work at the villa. Ugo, for example, is responsible for most of the cooking so he's always insistent that they stick to their meal schedule. Marcello gets a lot of mileage as the charming, sex-hungry pilot.
Once the feast begins, they only pause for sex. As the weekend wears on, they endure the consequences: fatigue, indigestion and eventually madness. The spectacle of the over-eating coupled by the performances makes it hard to turn away from the action. The ample portions of humor keep the tone light. However, when it was over, I wasn't sure what to make of the movie. Director Marco Ferreri (Tales of Ordinary Madness) must be making a statement but it's hard to put a finger on the meat of his social commentary.
Do the men represent the bourgeoisie? Is the movie about the excessive indulgences of the wealthy? Is there a class war between the men and their prostitutes? And why the suicide pact? Consider the scene where a toilet explodes and covers one of the men in excrement. It's a funny moment that made me laugh but what's the reason for it? Why does the toilet explode and, for that matter, why haven't we seen anyone use a toilet considering all the eating that's happening? Surely, the scene must be more than a mere toilet joke. Whatever Ferreri's message is, I must admit that I didn't get it.
The technical presentation on this Koch Lorber release is decent. The image is slightly soft and the constant grain is more pronounced in the darker parts of the frame. On the plus side, the picture is anamorphic and generally free of dust and scratches. Voices can be heard just fine on the mono audio track. In a few scenes, there's also a nice balance between the interaction on screen and faint environmental sound effects taking place unseen, outside the villa. Perhaps that's meant to comment on how these characters are oblivious to the real world?
The only extra is a five minute excerpt from the documentary "Marco Ferreri: the Director Who Came From the Future" that concerns this movie. It consists of a few brief interview clips and footage from the UK premiere. Unfortunately, the brief excerpt does not provide much context for the film and doesn't do anything for an introduction to the director's work. To make things more confusing, the movie is called Blow-Out in the documentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie's most memorable performance comes from Andréa Ferréol (The Last Metro) as the schoolteacher who accepts an invitation to dinner. She's a contrast to the long hair and svelte bodies of the hookers but Andréa's healthy, voluptuous persona adds a sensuality that is otherwise missing. It isn't clear if she wants the same end the men are pursuing but she's happy to be a part of the proceedings. Her enjoyment of their liberated sex and consumption of fine food is a reminder of the bodily pleasures enjoyed by the living.
Curiosity will continue to draw movie lovers to La Grande Bouffe, but they'll find that it does not live up to its reputation. Admirers of Ferreri's films gain a decent but unremarkable DVD of one of his essential works. Koch Lorber doesn't do new viewers any favors with its inclusion of a short documentary clip rather than a proper featurette. A little historical context would have been a valuable extra on this disc as an introduction to the movie. Speaking of context, the quote by Roger Ebert on the DVD's front cover calls it "an experience [that] hammers your sensibilities." Almost sounds like a recommendation but the quote is actually taken out of context from his negative review of the movie.
The movie is remanded pending further evidence of what the director was up
to. The DVD can save time by thinking about its last meal now.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Documentary Clip
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