Bright Lights Film Journal

Consumerist Ultimate Indigestion: La Grande Bouffe’s Deadly Physiological Pleasures

“To go to the cinema is like to eat or shit, it’s a physiological act, it’s urban guerrilla” ~ Marco Ferreri

Francis Bacon once said: “We’re flesh, potential carcasses. If I go to the butcher, I’m always surprised for not being there instead of the beef.” Marco Ferreri once said: “Enough with feelings, I want to make a physiological film.” Ferreri was never clearer than this in declaring a film’s intent. This time, spare time, emptied by the System only to be consumed as mere commodity, is filled by bodies centred around the limits of their own bellies, attracted by sex only as an ideal instrument to complete the process of emptying.

Produced by the brave Jean-Pierre Rassam, La Grande Bouffe is perhaps the most French film in Ferreri’s filmography, that, through the paroxysmal celebration of food, destroys also the civilization of which food is the emblem. The body seen (and filmed) as the last shore of the wreckage, food as the last hope hidden in the despair of living. A living that is reduced to the most basic functions: swilling, digesting, sleeping, drinking, burping, vomiting, fucking, pissing, shitting, in the desperate attempt to eliminate, along with vital substances, also the dregs of bourgeois ideology.

The discreet charm of the four dinner guests in the Parisian villa is the incarnation of one power and three products of that ideology, namely justice (Philippe Noiret), spectacle (Michel Piccoli), food (Ugo Tognazzi), adventure (Marcello Mastroianni). The value added to these myths is Beauty, intended as a formal perfection behind which a decaying body is hidden: like the nouvelle cuisine dishes prepared by Ugo, Marcello is elegant and refined; he chooses the Chinese room for his sexual performances; hung in the refrigerating room, his corpse occupies the same space of a beef carcass. Michel’s classical culture — his Latin mottos (Vanitas Vanitatum), Shakespearean quotes (the Amlet’s monologue with the beef’s head instead of the skull) — is impotent in front of the indigestion. Wearing a pink jumper and lattice gloves, Michel’s whispers try to tame the organic noises that are soon replaced by a piano refrain. The leitmotiv is taken from a melody whose notes accompanied Philippe’s childhood: the regression has just begun.

Amongst the varied responses to the film (including Bunuel’s “an hedonistic monument”), Pasolini’s focuses on the representation within space of these four bodies, “caught up in a synthesis of daily and regular habits that characterize the four bodies depriving them of our comprehension, fastening them in the ontological hallucinatory corporeal existence.”

1  After all, the same hallucination is found in the Baconian naked bodies of Last Tango in Paris, considered by Cahiers du Cinema along with La Grande Bouffe and La Maman et la Putain as being part of a trilogy on corporeal abjection. Paul’s sperm (Last Tango in Paris), Gilberte’s menstrual blood (La Maman et la Putain), and the excrements of Ferreri’s quartet constitute a secret part of something existing only as a threshold between inside and outside. A kind of sheath moved by alternated urges in dialectical relation between empty (sex) and full (food) that words are not always able to sublimate. There is neither seduction in Ferreri’s excretions nor a critical purpose: they are mere organic functions. The perturbation realm is reached through the representation of the “non-familiar” as the “familiar,” the internal body as the outside, the shit as the skin. The four, divided faces of the same alienated male, are almost always dressed, but we can hear their wombs’ voices. Only Andrea is filmed naked, as a projection of a primeval and non-historical sexuality, covered in blue that, being the absence’s color, is everpresent in the nocturnal external views of the villa. The male sexuality, reduced to impotence (Marcello), to indifference (Michel), or to regression (Philippe), appears then as the consequence of the feminization of the body, warped in the “confusion” between mouth and vagina: to eat not in order to nurture the organism, but to be possessed and fecundated in a sort of deadly fermentation.

Between the bathroom (intestine) and the dining room (stomach), where the quartet is overwhelmed by (in)digestion, we do not see any intermediary spaces/rooms, nor between bedroom and kitchen. The abandoned garden, after having provoked Marcelo’s death and hosted Philippe’s death, is open to straw dogs attracted by the smell and ready to devour the exceeding flesh. As Baudrillard wrote: “The waste challenges reality and signifies opulence, of which waste is the psychological, sociological and economical scheme.”
2  Unlike the waste left on the dishes, these wastes represent an alterity: they do not bear any sign belonging to the human body; Philippe’s body lies amongst the other carcasses as one of them. When ordering to throw out the flesh, Andrea opens up the skin of the house/belly, transferring the rotten from the inside to the outside.

When the body is a balloon whose breaking point is ignored, reality and fiction are merged like a roast beef and a pudding in a sick intestine: the Chinese ambassador talking with Philippe at the beginning is a “true” Chinese passing by chance near the set (the villa of rue Boileau is now the Vietnamese embassy). The food is really eaten by the actors during the shooting following the chronological order of the narrative.

Ferreri questions the uncertainty of the border between reality and fiction right in the beginning of the film when Ugo, commenting on the photographer’s picture of the turkey, utters: “It’s so beautiful that it seems fake.”

Reality tending to the simulacrum, as we can see again in Peter Greenaway’s homage to La Grande Bouffe, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and His Lover (1989), where the British director reflects upon the rite of an ancestral urge like hunger, castrated by a set of codes and rules polluting the aesthetic categories, transforming the monstrosity into beauty. What is missing from Greenaway’s glacial humor is the desperate smell of death and most importantly the void that permeates Ferreri’s film.

Notes

1. Cinema Nuovo, no. 231, August-September 1974.

2. Jean Baudrillard, The Consumerist Society: Myths and Structures (London: Sage Press, 1998).