Blu-ray review: La Grande Bouffe

Starring: Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, Marcello Mastroianni
Director: Marco Ferreri

Think Masterchef meets Last Tango in Paris, and you’ll have some idea what’s in store in this dark, scatological comedy from controversial Italian director Marco Ferreri. Four wealthy and apparently respectable middle-aged men – restaurateur Ugo (Tognazzi), TV exec Michel (Piccoli), judge Philippe (Noiret) and airline pilot Marcello (Mastroianni) – gather in a gloomy villa for an intensive session of wining and dining, in which they’re eventually joined by a gaggle of street prostitutes and (much more willingly) by an outwardly prim schoolteacher named Andrea (Andrea Ferreol) who soon turns out to be totally on their wavelength. However, this isn’t your usual case of men behaving badly, as it slowly becomes apparent that the four have decided to eat themselves to death.

It’s an example of Ferreri’s cleverness that it’s hard to say precisely when this becomes clear, since none of the men ever actually admits that this is what they’re doing, let alone providing an explanation for it. Certainly, two of the men have their problems. Thanks to an overweaning nanny, Philippe is a querulous man-child arrested in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, while beneath his impish charm Marcello is a crazed sex addict (a brave part for Mastroianni to take on, you’d think). Ugo and Michel, however, both seem relatively smooth, capable and high functioning, although poor Michel is a closet gay whose repressed lifestyle has left him a martyr to wind.

The closest we get is to a rationale is a negative assertion,“If you don’t eat, you won’t die!”, which turns on its head the received wisdom that people to live. The film has been taken as a satire on bourgeois excess, but it seems to be less about appetite than the yawning void that comes with loss of desire. Perhaps what the men are engaged in is simply the ultimate form of comfort eating, the search for oblivion in food?

Ferreri wraps his story around in the trappings of that most genteel of French cinematic forms, the weekend house party movie, and the whole thing is infused with gastronomic and cultural erudition and lit up by sparkling, teasingly self-revealing turns by its quartet of stars – we get to know these men so well even as we brace ourselves to say goodbye to them. Throw in a mood of isolation and melancholy, a once-sniffed-never-forgotten death scene for Piccoli, heaps of great-looking food and even bigger heaps of voluptuous nudity from the hearty, plus-sized Ferreol, and you have a transgressive yet warm-hearted comedy that easily ranks with the best of Bunuel and Borowczyk. 10/10

TRANSFER
There’s just a touch of softness to a couple of the interiors, but on the whole the transfer is sharp, with no grain or blemishes. The wintry exteriors of the gloomy villa all look deliciously cold and crisp, especially the sequence where a delivery of deer, boar, etc, arrives. In the scene of the schoolchildren in the garden, there’s a nice mixture of colour and sheen to their clothes. The endless still lifes of food look resplendent in a variety of succulent pastel shades, and the deep compositions that Ferrer favours for many of the sequences, with business taking place in foreground and background simultaneously, all come up in plenty of detail. 8/10

EXTRAS
27-min French TV piece from 1975 about the director. Ferreri isn’t perhaps the best explicator of his own work and the gruff sea captain persona that he adopted now seems rather offputting, but the piece contains some interesting clips of his early work. ~ Brief but extremely interesting b/w 11-min featurette for French TV from 1973 which takes us behind the scenes at the making of La Grande Bouffe. The actors talk about improvising their dialogue, Piccolo complains about having so eat so many dishes, all in the wrong order, and Ugo Tognazzi kicks a turkey that has wandered upstairs. ~ 4-min piece to do with the film’s appearance at Cannes in a storm of controversy, with the actors in bullish mood, especially Noiret, who talks about their special feeling of ownership towards the film having put so much of themselves into it. ~ 18-min video essay on Marco Ferreri by Pasquale Iannone – a brisk and thorough survey of the director’s chequered career up to his work on La Grande Bouffe. ~ Audio commentary by Iannone on selected scenes, with extensive bios of the actors and a few surprising snippets of info (apparently Tognazzi released a cookbook to tie in with the movie). 7/10

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