Long before Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke began poking and prodding the sensibilities of the arthouse set, there was Marco Ferreri. He took the kind of satirical notions pioneered by Bunuel and Pasolini and took them barbed, confrontational heights. La Grande Bouffe is a memorable example of his style, taking a satirical tale about upper class self-indulgence and pushing it to grim extremes that a lot of viewers and critics were not ready for.
La Grande Bouffe features four top ’70s-era European actors playing a quartet of bourgeois friends that happen to share the actor’s real first names: Marcello Mastroianni is a womanizing airline pilot, Michel Piccoli is a television producer, Ugo Tognazzi is a successful chef and Philippe Noiret is a pampered judge. They retreat to a villa that they stock with all the finest foods as it is revealed they have made a pact to eat elaborate meals until they die from culinary excess. A few prostitutes are enlisted to join their death trip, as well as a motherly teacher (Andrea Ferreol) drawn to their antics, but they all come to realize the morbid and painful nature of the men’s chosen path. However, the four friends are determined to pursue their quest to the bitter end.
The above premise sounds like it could be the source material for a zany, perverse comedy and La Grande Bouffe makes periodic gestures in this direction, like Piccoli being seized with severe flatulence or an overused toilet exploding, but Ferreri’s approach to the material is generally more subtle. He treats the narrative as an observational piece, giving the actors room to improvise and letting the audience feel like spectators rather than trying to structure the narrative and exploit its comedic potential with a lot of overt gags.
Ferreri’s reason for this choice of action dawns on the viewer slowly as the film progresses: at first, the actions of the men are quietly funny, then they become grotesque and finally, they become a tragedy that is all the more painful to watch because there is no reason for it to happen. This aspect of the film angered a lot of viewers but Ferreri wants the viewer to feel helpless and angry at being forced to look on as they casually, unflinchingly pursue their own demises while surrounded by comfort and beauty.
The perverse nature of the central quartet’s actions is accentuated by the beauty of the filmmaking. Ferreri’s direction is stately, a choice that is supported by lush, carefully lit camerawork from Marco Vulpiani and a sparingly deployed score by Philippe Sarde that is built around a sad, jazz-style theme. All four leads give memorable performances: Mastroianni fearless skewers his sex symbol image, Noiret is amusing as the most childlike of the four, Piccoli handles a showy role well as the prissy one who becomes unnerved by the gruesome extremes of their pact and Tognazzi symbolizes the group’s obsessiveness as a perfectionist chef (he also does a great Brando impression). That said, the scene stealer is Ferreol as the mother figure who becomes their companion: even when things get grim, she provides an unexpectedly warm and luminous presence.
In short, La Grande Bouffe is the kind of arthouse challenge that will test your mettle but it’s more effective than usual for this kind of the film because it creeps up on you in a gradual way. The results are worth exploring for the adventurous because there is genuine artistry in the provocation on display here.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title was recently released by Arrow Video in the U.S. and the U.K. as a special edition blu-ray/DVD combo set. The transfer is a newly-created remaster that looks gorgeous, offering a rich array of colors and a crisp sense of detail that suit the film’s sleek arthouse look. The mono French soundtrack is presented in LPCM form with English subtitles and it’s a clear, easy-to-follow track.
Arrow has also included a variety of extras. “The Farcical Movie” is a 1975 interview with Ferreri from French TV that includes clips of his work and musings on his influences, which include everything from Bunuel to Tex Avery. On a similar note, an excerpt from another French TV show offers 11 minutes’ worth of on-set footage from La Grande Bouffe that shows how playful the actors were.
The final t.v. inclusion is a brief report from the Cannes Film Festival that has the actors offering impassioned defenses for the film, which had just had a tumultuous screening. Elsewhere, Ferreri fans will be amused by a snippet of footage from a Cannes press conference where he dresses down a pretentious reporter.
Critic Pasquale Iannone also contributes a pair of extras. The first is a selected scenes commentary that covers 22 minutes’ worth of moments in the film. He offers detailed bios for Ferreri and his cast, information on the film’s influences and some details on its controversial reception. His other inclusion is a video essay that covers Ferreri’s early work up La Grande Bouffe, including clips for most titles as he describes Ferreri’s slow move into directing and his troubles with censors as he developed his voice. A booklet with liner notes from Johnny Mains closes the package out.
(Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.S.A. The disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray and the liner notes were provided to Schlockmania in PDF form.)