Progressives are often conflicted about food. Is eating just something you do to allow you to get on with the stuff that gives your life meaning? Or is food the celebration of life, a way of bringing family and friends together to share a sensual pleasure? Marco Ferreri’s neglected masterpiece of 1973, La Grande Bouffe, does not provide any easy answers; it uses food as an allegory for capitalism’s inherent contradiction: the imperative to increase consumption to a point where human life will no longer be viable. However, the film will make you question your own relationship to food and desire: unlike for other drives and desires, abstinence is not an option, unless you are a ho-hum breatharian.
Note to readers: if you have any issues around eating this is probably not the film for you: the Food Porn it employs is rebarbative and explicit.
Four middle aged male bourgeois plan a weekend at a villa in the Paris suburbs with the implicit intention of eating themselves to death. Ferreri builds up the pace and the scale of the eating to a suicidal crescendo: the viewer is forced to conclude that the end goal is extinction. There is no bald statement from any of the protagonists of “Hey we’re going to kill ourselves by overeating”. Similarly, no capitalist state or institution would admit that the unbounded drive to consume will lead inexorably to extinction.
GB is a male gang movie with bourgeois trappings. Ferreri uses a common trope: he creates a simulacrum of a nuclear family. We have Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi), elite restaurant owner and master chef, as Dad – Ugo sets the recipes and cooks. Phillipe (Phillipe Noiret), a seriously repressed high court judge, as Mom, helps Ugo in the kitchen and tries to maintain some sort of group decorum as the delirium builds. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), an airline pilot, is the naughty Son. Marcello insists that they engage female sex workers for the weekend: Mum and Dad demur but agree to indulge Marcello. The difficult Daughter is Michel (Michel Piccoli): Michel is obsessed with his appearance and his clothing. Playfully, Ferreri assigns each character their actor’s given name.
The scenes with the sex workers are problematic and echo De Sade. Marcello uses the women straightforwardly as commodities: their flesh is echoed by the rows of meat carcasses in the walk-in freezer. Michel gets angry that they will not eat with the required gusto. In contrast, Mum and Dad form a jovial relationship with them. The women identify a dysfunctional working relationship: their expertise is in provision of sexual relief rather than facilitation of group suicide.
The ensemble playing is superb: Mastroianni, Tognazzi, Piccoli and Noiret were all at the height of their powers. The script by Ferreri and the Spanish novelist Rafael Azcona is a delight: they build up layers of narrative using the road not taken. We are given: the emissary from the Chinese Communist Party offering Phillipe a job; a linden tree in the villa garden dedicated to the 17th century sycophantic court poet, Boileau, and a discourse on the car designer Bugatti’s idiosyncratic choice of footwear. Look out for the two poignant and acerbic scenes which illustrate the racism of 70s French society.
The soundtrack by Phillipe Sarde is enigmatic. The credits have a haunting North African melody. The only other music is vintage jazz on the 78 record player and Michel’s somewhat histrionic piano playing. What takes the breath away is the use of the ambient noise of the Paris suburb – you can hear it both in the villa and the garden. At moments in the eating it becomes more intrusive: the remorseless roar of modernity provides a frenzied, claustrophobic feel to the indoor scenes. In the outdoor scenes, the noise is merely banal and heightens the morbidity of a neglected garden.
One of the waves of noise is the chattering of kids, a crocodile of school children led by their teacher magically appear: they have come to see M Boileau’s linden tree. Being perfect bourgeois gentlemen, the protagonists show the children around and invite the teacher to the evening meal. The teacher, Andrea, accepts and a truly cosmic force is unleashed. Andrea, played by Andréa Ferréol in an astonishingly accomplished film debut, behaves as if an Ur Willendorf Venus had morphed into Kali, Destroyer of Worlds. Andrea outfucks and outeats her new male companions.
After the mayhem has died away, Ferreri leaves us with a parting shot of the villa. The house had been owned by Phillipe’s family for generations but has been unlived in for years; his mother “didn’t like it”. The elegance has departed – the villa hemmed in by brutalist suburban concrete from all angles, decrepit stray dogs roam the garden. One of the most depressing backdrops for a movie you will ever encounter but somehow it heightens the fun and absurdity at the film’s core. As with the apartment in Polanski’s The Tenant and with the glass and aluminium bourgeois dream home in the same director’s The Ghost-writer, the villa is the uncredited star.
A half-century on, the film continues to shock and subvert. How would the gang have fared since? The judge – despite a blip when the reactionary UK popular press drooled over Brexit and called judges Enemies of the People – would be on the rise: capitalism needs its judiciary. So too the TV producer: effortlessly. Only poor Marcello would have lost status and moneys due to the rise of cheap, mass air travel in the years leading up to the pandemic. But the winner for our times, would be the Dad, the MasterChef.
The rise of the cook as media star/maven has been central to late capitalism’s search for profit and added value in the global food and media industries, core sectors in the move from manufacturing to services. Ugo would have become a feted international celebrity: eagerly trying out the recipe for Lightly Sauteed Wuhan Bat.
Petronius lamented that the Republic fell when cooks became famous. Maybe in the decades to come, an algorithm will send out the message into infinity: the Earth expired when chefs became celebrities.
Andrea? She became the spirit of our times.
The sex workers? They are still working.