A Pocket Full of Clemsonite

March 1, 2009

Marco Ferreri’s “La grande bouffe”, not for the faint of heart, or *art


Imagine a certain group of influential people who have reached their expiration date on this earth. A good example that can be
found today is the investment bankers’. Except that they’re not the first, and certainly not the last. A somewhat practical question is: how to describe their disappearance? Since we are not talking about, say, dinosaurs, lost hundreds of millions of
years ago, but about humans, it has to be done by resorting to human traits. And since for the human watcher, the following
assertion applies: “I am human, therefore nothing human is foreign to me”, as Terence once said, it must have a special effect
to stick to certain traits that are human, but exacerbated. Abominable, disgusting traits or drives will work, too.

Nowadays, people have a high disrespect of the financial establishment, whose greed is already proverbial, and this world is
crumbling under its effect of its own greed. So it would make sense that, if one wants to make a film about such guys, describing them die while incessantly eating would not be too far off.

There is a problem, though, with this approach. It’s not that it’s not realistic, in the artistic sense. It’s that the idea was
used decades ago, for the purpose of describing the end of bourgeoisie, as we know it. (La grande bouffe) is maybe the pinnacle of this approach. Let’s review: four successful people (all males), for reasons that are not fully explained (but we are allowed glimpses into it), decide to retreat in one week-end to a manor and, taking advantage of the great chef skills of one of them, to eat first class food until they literally die. We get to see awesome gourmet dishes going down their throats. Whose theirs? Well, the characters have the actors’ last names: Ugo (Tognazzi) the chef, Michel (Piccoli) the entertainment business tycoon, Marcello (Mastroianni) the airline pilot who can’t spend any single night without getting laid, and Philippe (Noiret), the sexually-repressed judge. As we can see, opposites come together here as parts of the same socio-economic niche.

We are introduced into their preparations for the final rides of the four protagonists (or knights of Apocalypse?) and arrival
to the manor, where we witness an unforgettable adaptation of Othello’s monologue “To be or not to be, that is the question”,
in the manor’s yard, with a cow’s head in the hand. One has to suspect that Jeunet’s (mostly known for “Amelie”) “Delicatessen” take on post-apocalyptic gourmet food, is in fact a pastiche (a pretty good one, I must say) of Marco Ferreri’s film.

The first night of feast passes as planned, with only pictures of naked women on the screen. But the next morning Marcello
threatens to leave unless he can get his hands on some girls. So he snags a few “lost souls”, but there’s also a “real woman”,
a grade school teacher, attracted by the men’s clout and the good food, who will come to spend the night with them. This woman is actually a character which can also be found in “end of times” films like Jiri Menzel’s “The End of the old Times”
(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097681/) or Eldar Ryazanov’s Cruel Romance / The Girl Without Dowry (see a lyrical excerpt here ), a woman-accessory, without actually being considered fully as an equal. Although the scenes in which she is involved are extremely funny. First, she wants to tie the missing buttons of Philippe’s pants, and then she moves on to… you know what. Philippe’s reaction is maybe the most hilarious scene in the entire film: he asks her to marry him. He even sticks to his decision even after she gives herself (not because she is being “frivolous”, but out of the *goodness of her heart*) to the other suffering guys there.

We get to witness several side effects of over-eating, effects which should be reviewed by some corporate decision-makers in
financial institutions thriving on pushing credit. First, it’s the “*art” from this review’s title, which is actually a sign of relief from the stomach pain. Also, Marcello gets to know another painful effect on what he hurts most: severe difficulty in
maintaining erection and reaching orgasm. This, more so than overeating, is pushing him to death. Last, but not least, is the
logical problem of residue: if you’re eating too much, there’s the obvious problem of feces, which nastily overflow and give
everything a brownish flavor. Over-producing consumer crap issue, anyone?

Words to the wise: I consider this as mature artistic vision, and the author is not to blame for the vision his artistic eyes
are set on more than Zapruder getting on celluloid the murder of a president. And, if we do not reduce Marco Ferreri’s film to
a Nostradamus-like prediction of the end of the financial burgeoisie, we can appreciate it for what it is, in its wider scope.
It is, to a certain extent, parallel to another masterpiece of the cinema which can sometimes be perceived as abominable, just
because it speaks clearly about some human traits that are less praiseworthy, and some viewers lack the inner hinges to fully
grasp it. I am talking about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, in which Italian fascists do unspeakable things to a group of
youths, in a visionary warning about a consumerist society which has no saints, no morals, and will likely end up by reducing
itself to nought. Unfortunately, in this case of Salo, the director fell first prey to his vision. He was assassinated close to
the beach where Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 was shot, and later his film was banned for so many years.

Coming back to “La grande bouffe”, everything goes as planned. The whores, not getting the point, leave after overeating a few times (they also exhibit a few side effects of eating too much), and the teacher assists them while they make steps toward their passing, A specific scene, when she gives pleasure to a dying Ugo who doesn’t stop eating, is reminiscent of a scene in Roman Polanski’s “What?“.

But it is the magnificent ending which is leading us back to the philosophical question “To Be or Not To Be”. Since the dead bodies have taken the place of the meat in the fridge, the next batch of fresh meat which is delivered cannot fit in, hence it is left in the yard, next to the dogs and other animals. A carcass is even put on a smaller tree. Leaving us to wonder which is the next carnivorous species who will replace this breed that has just disappeared. Like the sheep in Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” ( recently released in the US in the Criterion Edition) replacing humans in another bourgeoisie-bashing film made by a director happy to hit on bourgeois morals.

Needless to say that this is not a film to recommend watching with minors or people with rigid morals around. Judging by my
experience, I would not even recommend a masterpiece like Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” to be watched in such conservative environments. But the deep meaning of the film is, ironically, very understandable even by the adopters of “doom and gloom” attitude. So, it’s more about being flexible enough to discuss it, even view it as a scenario coming time and again in the cyclical historical time, make steps to come to terms with it, and move on.

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2 Comments »

  1. If you like italian cinema visit our blog.
    G.

    Comment by controreazioni — November 11, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    • But where is your blog?

      Comment by floreign — November 12, 2009 @ 5:51 am


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