Italian provocateur Marco Ferreri’s films often have subtextual mission statements, but the films themselves hide nothing, and his favorite plot shape is the long slide down into chaos. “La Grande Bouffe” (1973), his most notorious movie, epitomizes this garishly: Michel Piccoli (a TV host), Marcello Mastroianni (a pilot), Philippe Noiret (a judge) and Ugo Tognazzi (a chef), all using their real names, convene for a fortnight in a gated mansion to embark upon a “seminaire gastronomique,” abetted by a gaggle of hookers and a single, zaftig schoolteacher (Andréa Ferréol) utterly game for anything.
They chow down on mountains of pâté, roast duck, chicken, pork, mousse, pastries, oysters, lobsters and so, infinitely, on, and the purpose of their debauch is never made explicit — a few smiles and nods about eating until they die is all we get, and of course we soon understand, as intestinal fortitude gives way to bowel trauma, etc., that these deliberate gluttons are acting out what Ferreri sees as the excessive habits of Western civilization, hellbent as it is in the last century on trying to consume everything around it. (The fellas eat sometimes fiercely, but sometimes dutifully.) Eventually, of course, the toilet explodes.
Like several Ferreri films (I’m thinking particularly of 1969’s “Dillinger Is Dead”), the satire is implicit, and the action is strangely devoid of content, comedic or otherwise — Tognazzi’s flinch when a whore slams her fist into a cake may be the only laugh I found. Billed as a farce, “La Grande Bouffe” is something else, a quiet and observant screed, a cousin to Pasolini’s “Salò” two years later but with a simpler and slightly more empathetic arc (the characters are all deeply drawn), laying waste to modern man and refusing to tell us how to feel about the process.