La Grande Bouffe Review
Four wealthy middle-aged friends leave behind their family and jobs and get together in secret for a weekend of unbridled gastronomic indulgence and vice. All of the men are wealthy and in respectable jobs - Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi) is a chef, Michel (Michel Piccoli) is a TV producer, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a pilot and Philippe (Philippe Noiret) is a judge. Gathered at Michel’s once grand suburban house, they commence the weekend by sharing a large meal and appreciating Michel’s collection of antique erotic photographs. Marcello however isn’t satisfied with just images for this special blow-out - he wants the presence of real women and hires three prostitutes to share in the festivities.
There is consequently something rather sordid and disgusting in La Grande Bouffe as well as joyous and exuberant about the unbridled excess and wild indulgence in this bacchanalian feast that has no other point other than to stimulate the basest of the senses and push them to their limits. It’s not just the extravagance and abundance of the vast amounts of food that are consumed, nor the long bouts of flatulence that consequently follow or the explosions of seriously congested toilets that make the occasion seem more than a little depraved – though they do go some way. It’s probably more the fact that these are not young men, but wealthy middle-aged men in respectable professions, and there consequently seems to be something desperate in their actions. Which of course there is.
The casting of La Grande Bouffe also has something to do with confirming this impression. It certainly adds shock value to see four of the greatest European film actors of the period, as well respected and renowned as the professional gentlemen they play, using their own names for their characters and debasing themselves in such a manner. None of them put in their career best performances here in roles that really don’t require much subtlety of expression as they throw themselves into cavorting wildly with prostitutes and stuffing their faces with food – often both at the same time - but they are challenging and unusual roles nonetheless.
Throughout the film then there is a contrast between the respectability of the four men and the vulgarity of their behaviour. They insist that however that it is not a vulgar orgy but a gourmet weekend - Ugo, the chef, going to great lengths to procure the finest foods and prepare the finest dishes, which are lavishly presented and copious in quantity. The contrast also extends to the presence of the prostitutes, which is not welcomed by Philippe, but he is happy to accommodate the invitation of a broadminded middle-aged school teacher Andrea (Andréa Ferréol), but only on the condition that they get married one day. The women bring the joyous element to the proceedings, representing life, while the activities of the men tend towards death, attempting to reduce life down to base instincts, blocking out everything else through their single-minded occupation of eating and fucking themselves into oblivion. The men’s negation of everything else is even evident in the articulacy of Piccoli’s character, who is eventually reduced to little more than bouts of extreme flatulence and incoherent groans.
So, what is the purpose of all this on-screen depravity? Well, many see La Grande Bouffe as a condemnation of capitalism, of western affluence and consumerism, the characters representing, in Buñuel fashion, the decadent pillars of a morally bankrupt society, finding artistic, philosophical, and literary references within its premise. I suppose this depends on whether you view Ferreri alongside de Sade and Bataille as philosophical commentators on society, but personally I prefer to see both the film and the actions of the characters stemming from a more individual, nihilistic and anarchic impulse, challenging the viewer to confront base human instincts and desires, and offering no such comforting distance that underneath the surface we are not exactly like these characters ourselves.
La Grande Bouffe is released in the UK by Nouveaux Pictures. The DVD is a dual-layered disc in PAL format. There is a discrepancy between the cover and the label of the disc itself, one saying the DVD is Region 2, the other saying it is Region 0. The disc is actually encoded for Region 2.
The film is transferred anamorphically at the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and the image is generally fine, but it does seem to have been taken and restored from an old cinema print. It’s a little bit dark and grainy throughout, with heavy contrast. Colours also look not quite right and appear a little over warm, as if red tones have been boosted to correct fading. Nevertheless there is good sharpness, clarity and detail in the image, though not so much in shadows. Marks are certainly evident, as are large reel-change marks, but there isn’t anything that presents a serious problem. There is however rather a lot of blocking and shimmering caused by compression artefacts, which are visible throughout. You can view some clips from the film on the DVD Times News Item for this DVD release
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is generally adequate. Dialogue is reasonably clear and audible, but it is a little harsh around the edges.
English subtitles optional and in a white font.
The extra features on the DVD consist of a fine Picture Gallery of 10 promotional stills for the film and Frank Bordoni’s Blow Out (14:40), where the celebrity chef gives a summary and appreciation of the film, as well as the dishes prepared in the film, giving a cookery lesson on how to prepare Crêpe Suzette. I don’t know whether most viewers will regard this as a good feature or not, but it seems appropriate to focus on a love of food in this way. I think I’d prefer this – extending it perhaps to other dishes – rather than a dull academic analysis of the film. The feature contains many spoilers, but there is a helpful warning about this at the start.
Rather like Passolini’s Salò or Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, La Grand Bouffe pushes the basest human desires and instincts to extreme limits, and it’s not particularly pleasant viewing. Despite the rather simple premise of the film, it raises a number of intriguing questions and can even be seen as an allegory of consumerist society if you are so inclined to analyse it that way. Like those other films mentioned above however, it doesn’t offer any easy answers or moral messages and not everyone is going to want to confront the unadulterated depravity that is shown on the screen here or what it implies. Nouveaux’s DVD release is adequate, presenting the film as good as you would expect a restored cinema print would look – but it is not a pristine transfer from a restored negative and there are unfortunately rather too many issues with compression artefacts.