(1973)3.5Nathan SouthernUpon release, Marco Ferreri's 15th credited feature earned a scandalous reputation from some American critics, who saw it as empty and pretentious. But this scathing attack on European "conspicuous consumption" reflects surprising refinement, self-control, and insight. Ferreri's intelligence undergirds the material -- he peppers the film with dozens of witty European sociocultural allusions and metaphors -- such as the old mansion (representative of the crumbling consumer class) and Marcello Mastroianni's sports car, which he accelerates recklessly in one scene without moving the vehicle (an existential symbol of how fruitless and empty these lives have become). That some Western critics would overlook this depth doesn't detract from the value of the film, but it makes perfect sense given the vast cultural differences between Europe and the States. Even the hilarious overriding joke -- that the French are known for their stingy portions, whereas these men feel content to gorge themselves on entire cows and pigs -- would go over the heads of many Americans.
As for coprophagic comedy, Ferreri laces his picture with many lunges into wild and bawdy humor, but because he constantly resists visual tastelessness, none of the film's bursts of scatology come across as puerile or facile -- and the film retains a veneer of utter hilarity and affability. (Two highlights: the toilet that explodes, showering a horrified Mastroianni with excrement, and Philippe Noiret's chosen means of death -- whereby this rotund man, with a breast fetish and an incestuous craving for his obese nursemaid, gorges himself on two enormous, tit-shaped mounds of pudding, replete with giant nipples). The film's primary weakness is a towering one, though: Ferreri never carries the audience inside of the reasons for the men's desperation prior to dramatizing their final, shocking acts of self-destruction -- an inclusion that would give the whole film a much needed layer of depth. Nonetheless, he does poignantly reveal the men's towering self-delusions and double-mindedness when it comes to systematically killing themselves yet feeling revulsion when death slaps them in the face. (Witness Michel Piccoli's weeping and wailing over Mastroianni's corpse -- an act so histrionic that it almost becomes an outrageous in-joke.) This deludedness drives much of the film, but we eventually see through it, which makes the second half of the picture terribly sobering. And understanding this, Ferreri strips the surface-level humor after Mastroianni's character dies, turning the last act, by necessity, into a long, melancholic descent. Mirroring the lone, haunting piano theme that Piccoli plays throughout the picture, La Grande Bouffe's final notes are not in any way humorous, but ineffably, unbearably sad -- so sad that, when the story's inner desperation finally rears its naked head, the film's concluding moments break our hearts.
Subversive Italian satirist Marco Ferreri directed and co-wrote (with Rafael Azcona) this grotesquely amusing French black comedy about four men who grow sick of life, and so meet at a remote villa with the goal of literally eating themselves to death. The quartet comes from various walks of life -- a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a television host (Michel Piccoli), and a judge (Philippe Noiret) -- but all are successful men with excessive appetites for life's pleasures (food is used as mere metaphor here, as graphic as that metaphor becomes).