food in the arts


Dir: Marco Ferreri/ 1973/ France /  125 mins/  main Actors Marcello MastroianniI, Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli, Ugo Tognazzi

Four successful middle-aged men Marcello, a pilot, Michel, a television executive, Ugo, a chef; and, Philippe, a judge go to Philippe's villa to eat themselves to death. After the first night, Marcello insists that women should join them. Three prostitutes make it through a day or two; Andrea, a local school teacher, stays to the end. The villa, the food, and a Bugati roadster are essential props.

La Grande Bouffe is an almost archetypally European movie - a Franco-Italian co-production, directed by a noted auteur, Marco Ferreri, and starring arguably the three greatest of all European actors, Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli and Phillipe Noiret. It features allusions to philosophy, art history and literature, and is confined, Bunuel-like, to the single set of a decaying town mansion. It is also about four middle-aged men stuffing themselves to death, blocking toilets until they messily explode, and, er, breaking wind.

Ferreri treats his theme of excess - food, sex, self-pity - with an almost Oriental restraint, matching lengthy, static long shots so dense with detail and so darkly lit that it's often difficult to make anything out, to extreme close-ups, pitilessly exposing yet also strangely moving: a bit like Ozu filming Fellini.

We gradually learn that they have come here to die, but Marcello is unable to continue without sex, so they hire some prostitutes, as well as inviting a local, seemingly innocent, teacher, who is soon revealed to have appetites equal to any of the men. And so the men eat. And eat. And eat. They sometimes have sex, watch antique 'erotic' slides, drive cars, get sick. But mostly they eat. They even have competitions to see who can eat the fastest.

This, ironically, does not sound very appetising for the viewer. There is no narrative drive for instance - any conflict possibly brought by the pure, innocent Andrea, a symbol of life in an atmosphere of decay, to whom Phillipe proposes marriage, are quickly dashed by her own taste for depravity. The men decide to die, and we watch them do it. The film begins with a methodical introduction to all four characters, and ends as methodically picking each one off.

This neo-Sadean orgy - with its comic counterpart in  Terry Jones's exploding fat diner in Monty Python's THE MEANING OF LIFE - marks the ne plus ultra of the cinema of disgust, a metaphysical rejection of the world translated into a relentless, nauseating spectacle of self-destruction.

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