An exercise in absurdity delivered by way of a narrative that explodes with grotesque excess, La Grande Bouffe tells the strange story of four European men who sequester themselves in a private estate with the goal of eating themselves to death. In lieu of explanations for why the characters want to die, cowriter/director Marco Ferreri explores behavior in loving detail, shooting the picture with the elegantly controlled color schemes and supple photographic textures of an art film while filling his frames with sumptuously designed locations and props. The disconnect between Ferreri’s rarified cinematic style and the low nature of what he films is bewildering, because La Grande Bouffe features epic flatulence, an exploding toilet that covers leading man Marcello Mastroianni with excrement, gruesome images of corpses stored in meat lockers, quasi-explicit sexual encounters, and the unpleasant spectacle of a man suffering a heart attack during a traumatic bowel movement. By comparison, the throwaway scene of the prostitute vomiting because she’s overeaten is tame.
Although describing the plot of La Grande Bouffe serves little purpose since lots of crucial information is deliberately withheld, Ferreri and cowriter Rafael Azcona offer tantalizing hints about their characters. Mastroianni plays an airline pilot who, in modern parlance, would be described as a sex addict. Does he wish to die before he loses his looks and his virility? Philippe Noiret appears as a judge so incapable of leaving his childhood behind that he lives in his boyhood home under the emasculating supervision of his sexually voracious nanny. Ugo Tagnazzi plays a chef who seems successful and well-adjusted, though he’s an obsessive perfectionist with regard to food preparation. And Michel Piccoli plays a television producer who might or might not be a repressed homosexual, but who definitely has a difficult relationship with his daughter. The filmmakers give each character a hint of hopelessness and suggest that each character has a major unfulfilled wish—Mastroianni’s character restores a glorious old sportscar, Noiret’s character meets a woman he wants to marry, and so on.
At the risk of a horrible pun, there’s a lot to digest here. There’s also a lot to endure, since most of what happens onscreen during this overlong film is repugnant. Mastroianni’s horny character hires hookers, which leads to exploitive scenes of the fully clothed male actors groping nude female costars and/or slathering the women’s bodies with food. In one of the film’s most intriguing elements, the men befriend a heavyset schoolteacher played by Andréa Ferréol. Initially portrayed as an innocent, the schoolteacher reveals an appetite for debauchery and gluttony commensurate with that of the self-destructive protagonists. The way her character nurtures the four men without judging or even questioning their behavior says something. What exactly that something might be of course remains mysterious, as do so many aspects of La Grande Bouffe. This movie is bizarre, disgusting, and enigmatic, but it’s also inexplicably fascinating, and the fine actors perform their outrageous roles with gusto and sensitivity.
La Grande Bouffe: FREAKY