If one man's trash is another man's treasure, then so too can one man's feast be merely a unfulfilling snack for another. Likewise, what may be a biting and shocking satire to you might turn out to induce merely a shrug from me.
Such is the case with Marco Ferreri's 1973 film La Grande Bouffe (The Big Feast), a semi-notorious shockfest that plays like a cross between Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Pasolini's Salo. The latter comparison is even made on the DVD box, in a quote from our very own DVD Talk, no less. Again, one reviewer's shocking and disturbing is another reviewer's interesting but underwhelming.
La Grande Bouffe (also known as Blow-Out) is the story of four friends who are gathering for a culinary orgy, a weekend where they plan to eat until they quite literally die. Trucks of food are brought in to fill their decadent menu, and the men have come together in secret, revealing neither their true goals nor their destination to anyone. They number among them a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), an airline pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a television presenter (Michel Piccoli), and a high-court judge (Philippe Noiret), each actor lending their own names to their characters. Though they originally agreed on solitude, Marcello's other cravings demand service, and he hires three prostitutes to undertake this marathon with them. Also enlisted is the local schoolteacher (Andréa Ferreol), a voluptuous woman whose appetites prove to shame that of the hosts themselves. Long after the other girls have gone, she stays and has sex with each diner in turn, despite having accepted Philippe's offer of marriage, and she not only keeps eating, but she even manages to profess to being hungry.
Make of that what you will, because I'm not quite sure what to make of La Grande Bouffe myself. The question that hangs over the whole thing for me is, "Why?" There is very little explained here. The fact that the men intend to die is only briefly touched on, and there is no philosophical or moral explanation as to their reasoning for such an undertaking. Faint social distinctions can be made in terms of each man's position in society--two working men of different stripes, a semi-intellectual entertainer, a political figure--and they each flaunt social conventions and violate personal morality with equal abandon, but what is the point, really? The randy fun of watching overgrown frat boys party hearty? Because that far outweighs whatever else Marco Ferreri and the other writers have put into the script.
I'm a little surprised to see that La Grande Bouffe has an NC-17 rating. Maybe if we adjust the ratings for inflation the way we do box office receipts so a once successful film can compete financially with modern-day ticket gouging, maybe then La Grande Bouffe is scandalous enough to make the puritanical shriek in terror. Speaking as someone who covered his eyes multiple times while watching Salo, I didn't so much as retch once during La Grande Bouffe; furthermore, no matter how on the nose Pasolini's film hit its anti-fascist and dehumanizing buttons, at least we got its rather obvious and shallow message. For a movie that mixes greed, food, and sex in one repulsive narrative, I'll stick with Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Greenaway achieves a sensory overload that makes La Grande Bouffe look like a kindergarten Christmas pageant. The art direction, the colorful dishes, the scatological explosions--La Grande Bouffe doesn't quite compare.
Nevertheless, for all those complaints, setting aside a quest for greater meaning, I still actually enjoyed La Grande Bouffe. In fact, I was kind of surprised that its two-hour running time passed so quickly. It was anything but tedious, and I think that is largely thanks to the marvelous cast. I could watch Marcello Mastroianni be lecherous in just about anything, and his fellow actors are game to try to keep up with him. It's just that if La Grande Bouffe is meant to be a great feast intended to overload the viewer the way its characters engorge themselves on booze and pâté, it fails to satiate. Rather, it's more like the old cliché about Chinese food: I was hungry for a more substantial movie an hour after the closing credits.
I did catch one problem I've seen before in other Koch Lorber releases, and that's a momentary pause at quite a few of the chapter breaks. Not a terrible thing, but once you notice it, trust me, you'll keep noticing it.