Marco Ferreri is one of my all time favourite directors, for both his fearlessness in pushing boundaries and his piercing originality. Ferreri's greatest achievement was making relentlessly intellectual films that also managed to entertain. While many other European directors could get caught up in their own genius, Marco Ferreri was never pretentious enough to forget about his audience.
La Grande Bouffe is one of Ferreri's best and most notorious films. The premise is infamous, four friends gather at a country mansion with the intention of literally eating themselves to death. When this becomes tiresome they hire three prostitutes and invite the local school teacher to join them. This is not a film that follows a linear narrative, instead it expertly crafts a sense of atmosphere from a series of acutely observed vignettes. There are enough unforgettable images and surreal happenings in this film to make Salvador Dali green with envy. The meat garden, Andrea and Michel's flatulent love making and Philippe's relationship with his nanny are just three that come to mind. There is genius at work here, this is not an exercise in empty symbolism but a disturbing slice of modern life.
The impact of La Grande Bouffe has not wearied with age. The sex scenes are possibly less confronting (although Marcello's inventive use of a champagne bottle still raises eyebrows) but the film's psychological impact has not been dulled. The characters' ruthless pursuit of death is all the more disturbing given their unadulterated appreciation for life's pleasures. For a film with such disturbing content, La Grande Bouffe is also effortlessly entertaining. Ferreri somehow manages to balance the building tension with black humour, raunchy sex scenes and even budding romance.
This is probably a good time to mention the cast. Ferreri has gathered together a who's who of European cinema. Ferreri regulars like Mastroianni and Tognazzi combine brilliantly with French heavyweights like Piccoli and Noiret. Andrea Ferreol more than matches it with these acting giants. She deserves significant credit for her illuminating performance as the open minded school teacher with the appetite of a blue whale.
La Grande Bouffe is intelligent, disturbing and unrelenting. Most importantly, it is also entirely non-judgemental. Ferreri would never insult his audience by suggesting to them what they should think. If only more modern directors had taken note.