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The Dirtiest Food Movie Ever Is Also One Of The Best

La Grande Bouffe gleefully skewers excess, good taste, and the bottomless hunger of the bourgeoisie.

In the spring of 1973, Marco Ferreri set the table for a cinematic feast. The director, known for such films as The Ape Woman and Dillinger is Dead, had recruited a strong composer, a veteran cinematographer, and a curious mix of new and accomplished actors for his entry into the International Film Festival at Cannes. With the jury assembled and the audience hungry for art, the first reel of La Grande Bouffe hit the screen. It was as though a dirty bomb had been served from the kitchen.


The film's plot is fairly simple: Four successful friends—a pilot, a chef, a television host, and a magistrate—gather in a large house with the aim of literally eating themselves to death. Along the way, several prostitutes and a young, seemingly innocent school teacher join the festivities. Gluttony, lechery, and a honey wagon's worth of gross-out humor ensue.

La Grande Bouffe, later rated NC-17, was instantly divisive. Legend has it that Ingrid Bergman, who was presiding over the Cannes committee, vomited during the screening. And for weeks afterward, the cast was subjected to questions about whether or not the film's flatulence sound effects were real.

"The farts," said actor Michel Piccoli. "That's all people want to talk about. Everyone farts. 'Oh dear. How terrible.'"


But what is La Grande Bouffe really about?

On the surface, the movie is what it is: a group of people engaging in such gluttonous behavior that (spoiler alert) most of them don't live out the weekend. Yet the filmmakers were defensive and passionate about the project, with strong thoughts on its underlying meanings.


Weeks after the premiere, members of the cast and crew sat elbow-to-elbow beneath the lights of a television camera. After discussing an ad for the film that depicts each of their bare bottoms, three of the four leads began fielding questions about La Grande Bouffe's potential satire and symbolism.

"It's been described as a horror film," said Piccoli. "It's the opposite. It's an awakening. It's a film to wake people up, to show how certain people live and a different way of living. There has been a lot of talk, too, about vulgarity and sex. It's because people are still scared, so they use words which mask the essence of life.... It's a film about love and affection."

"Affection and friendship," chimes in Philippe Noiret. "Our lives are full of vulgarity. Calling this film vulgar is an error in judgement."


Through it all, Ferreri sits, smoking, smirking. The director and his film had already received a prize from the International Federation of Film Critics, along with a nomination for the Palme d'Or, the top honor at Cannes. He insisted La Grande Bouffe was not philosophical but physiological. In a press conference following the screening, he gleefully shouted with journalists, many of whom claimed the film was an attack on consumerism.

"If the film is against consumer society, then it has ecological pretensions... You say that I said it was against a consumer society. That's an ecological pretension... So I'm telling you that it's an ecological film."

Contemporary reviews of La Grande Bouffe were... mixed

The lining booklet from the excellent Blu-Ray restoration by Arrow Films contains an entire chapter dedicated to reviews of La Grande Bouffe. Here are just a few of the highlights.

"What must easily be the most disgusting film ever shown in competition at an international festival," said Patrick Gibbs in the Daily Telegraph on May 22, 1973.


"A food and sex orgy which makes Last Tango in Paris look like kindergarten stuff," opined Cecil Wilson later that year, in December 28's Daily Mail. "There are some undeniably funny moments, but I felt ashamed to laugh in such revolting circumstances."

In the September 30, 1973 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert said of La Grande Bouffe, "It's decadent, self-loathing, cynical, and frequently obscene. But there's one thing you can say for it (and my colleague Terry Curtis Fox did, on his way out of the theater): 'This film reaffirms my faith that it's still possible to be offended by a film.'"

I'll give the last word to Virginia Dignam, from the Morning Star on January 4, 1974: "Is this film a sick joke or a work of art? I would suggest the former, but if it is the latter, then I consider it art with an F."


But how does La Grande Bouffe hold up?

Watching La Grande Bouffe is like pounding an entire bottle of aged wine and chasing it down with a cheese tray. It's the best, in many ways, but it's also a lot. The satire is thicker than buttercream, and the more you watch, the more you're brought in on the joke.


For all the various bluster, the film's place as consumerist/classist satire has more or less been cemented. What was true at the time of the its release is even more so today: The rich sit at the head of the table, and they're hungry. But La Grande Bouffe never reads like a Marxist tract, and its humor has helped it endure. One simple message that comes through loud and clear is, "Come on, man. Don't you think you've had enough?"

But, I'm not gonna lie, it's also a Franco-Italian film from the '70s. There's plenty of nudity, numerous narrative quirks, and attitudes that have aged less than favorably. For better or worse, it takes a little bit to get rolling. But once it does, get ready for erotic car repair and make-out sessions with mouthfuls of cake.


What saves the film from diving completely into exploitation is a star-making turn by actress Andréa Ferréol. In the role of the female lead (and almost unbelievably in her film debut), her character's discovery of sexual power and the relish with which she wields it is nothing short of captivating. And though lewdness and bad taste abound, there are no forcible or non-consensual actions in the film.

Unless you count a man being force-fed to death, while engaged in grown-up activities. That happens.

But in the end, this startlingly dark comedy is a masterpiece of indulgence. The food is abundant and beautifully photographed, and the editing and score draw you in like a guilty pleasure. If you have a curious appetite, a strong stomach, and a wicked eye for humor, then La Grande Bouffe deserves a place on your shelf.