‘La Grande Bouffe’: the movie that shocked Cannes, 40 years ago

Four well-heeled middle-aged men convene for a long weekend in Paris: they are Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a dashing airline pilot; Michel (Michel Piccoli), a dapper talk-show host; Philippe (Philippe Noiret), a judge; and Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi), a celebrated chef. They get together in a little-used townhouse that, though secluded, has a school for a neighbor. We hear children playing in the schoolyard, far in the background… while in the foreground, the leads indulge in unparalleled debauchery.

For as gradually becomes clear, the four men have gathered to eat themselves to death. These four seemingly respectable gentlemen are going to eat and drink (plus fornicate) and eat and drink until they drop dead, and director Marco Ferreri is going to make you watch every minute of it. The bourgeoisie, you understand, are gorging themselves to death. It’s death by consumption.

Perhaps Ferreri had Theater of the Absurd in mind when he dreamed up this scenario (and La Grande Bouffe could easily have been a stage play, and might have had more impact as a one-act), or just centuries of European satirical tradition. But today the type of satire the movie exemplifies — gleefully over the top, and self-consciously decadent — feels as dated as the use of the zoom lens.

What holds up today is how exceptionally well crafted the movie is. Ferreri keeps his camera static, the better for us to share in the sense of torpor as his four leads stuff themselves senseless. But the still, patient framing also allows us to admire the deep-focus tableaux the filmmakers have painstakingly created. The townhouse is overstuffed with exotic bric-a-brac, the characters engulfed by the most lavish furnishings and sumptuous textures, all of it screaming too much!

Ferreri lights and shoots this rich man’s playpen beautifully — in the wide shots the lights and darks are arranged so artfully the eye can barely take it all in, even with the deliberate pacing of the shots. As with so many Italian movies, the viewer gets a sense of a production team steeped in hundreds of years of art history. The stellar cast also helps the film immeasurably. The four leads play their roles without a hint of condescension, so that they aren’t quite the straw men they could have easily become.

Once La Grande Bouffe establishes its premise, that the four men have sequestered themselves in this townhouse to embark on a gourmet feast that will kill them, the movie starts piling on one grotesquerie after another. After the slow buildup of the first 30 minutes, the festivities commence, and things get livelier as three prostitutes arrive, along with a young but matronly schoolteacher (Andrea Ferreol). If you think the schoolteacher is going to be the voice of reason, or a reality check for the four men, guess again — this is satire from the early ‘70s. She starts pigging out like the rest of them.

There’s more. Two of the prostitutes, it turns out, are lesbians; the script tosses this in as an extra bon-bon of kinkiness, Ferreri all but elbowing the viewer, as if to say, can you believe how outrageous this is? There’s also a suggestion that Michel, with his pink turtleneck and squeamishness around the hookers, is a closeted homosexual. Perhaps this played as worldly in 1973, but the tee-hee attitude with which Ferreri presents his gay characters seems dubious, and certainly dated today.

Staggering onward, the bacchanal becomes faintly amusing, even as it’s incredibly gross. But 90 minutes in, when a toilet explodes and Michel Piccoli is running around a bathroom flooded with shit, any faint amusement the movie might have inspired becomes pretty strained, and not because of moral indignation.

We’ve already seen all kinds of vulgar, swinish behavior, watched one of the prostitutes vomit, and endured the Michel character’s titanic farts. (The sound effects are remarkably precise.) Soon the excrement from the flooded bathroom has stained the ceiling and the walls of the dining room below. And yet the men keep eating. The film’s enervating march to the 130-minute mark weighs on us just as much as the men belching their way to an early grave.

The biggest problem with all this is that shock value just ain’t what it used to be. In 1973, La Grande Bouffe had the desired effect: at the Cannes Film Festival that year it was a succès de scandale that Lars von Trier could only dream of. Jury president Ingrid Bergman reportedly vomited after seeing the movie; people spat on Ferreri as he exited the screening. Critics awarded him a prize.

The scandals of yesteryear.

Later that year the film set box-office records in Paris, with arguments and fistfights supposedly spilling out from the theaters into the streets. Erstwhile Rolling Stones manager and El Topo distributor Allen Klein snapped up the U.S. rights, undoubtedly assuming that young, long-haired audiences would love a movie that invited them to jeer at their parents.

But since 1973 plenty of filmmakers have figured out how to render fart noises in crystalline stereo mixes. Ferreri sought to provoke audiences from the high end, John Waters did it from the low end (before becoming a veritable theoretician of shock value), and throughout the 1970s countless “hard R” movies and grindhouse flicks ate away at whatever notions of good taste were still left in filmmaking.

And that’s all before the Hollywood comedies of the last 15 years or so — there’s no outrage that moviegoers haven’t been subjected to, again and again. I envy that Cannes audience in 1973, still so capable of being shocked.

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