La Grande Bouffe & Tales of Ordinary Madness

Anecdotal evidence that arises in the wake of notorious films measures their impact in an incomplete, specious manner. Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom are two such infamous films that carry a history of scandal that clouds their actual import. Both darkly satirized the appetites of the ruling class and were emblematic of the taboo-shattering international film trend that appeared in the ‘70s, which was also the decade that gave birth to Star Wars and the production excesses of the modern blockbuster era.

To review the spectrum of negative effects represented: The Star Wars series eventually lost fans’ goodwill and dispensable income, La Grande Bouffe made Ingrid Bergman vomit at Cannes, and the outrage over Salò is said to have led to the murder of Pasolini. Each cinematic transgression has its conveniently scaled outcome, in degrees bitter and tragic, but none more pronounced and sobering than the loss of Pasolini.

To watch the new DVD release of La Grande Bouffe a few decades after its original release is to experience a fulcrum point in shock cinema. Never does it reach the nihilistic depths and explicit corporal destruction of Salò (few movies do), but the film remains absorbing in its unique way.

Ferreri’s most enduring and successful choices in the film have little to do with the mere existence of onscreen debauchery, which generated the original controversy but has lost its shock over time. A contemporary viewing reveals that the ensemble of bona fide legends, the visual design of the film, and a purposefully ambiguous moral stance have much to do with its staying power.

Philippe (Noiret) is a judge, Michel (Piccoli) is a television host, Ugo (Tognazzi) is a chef, and Marcello (Mastroianni) is a pilot. The four men gather at an expansive house to have what they refer to as a “gastronomic seminar”. The introduction is a rather soft sell, establishing each character’s comfortable wealth and refinement but also hinting at mysterious quirks.

The rest of the film takes place beyond the boundaries of social norms and within the walled-city of the villa, as the men accept a massive delivery of meat and other food and invite prostitutes and a mysterious schoolteacher to eat from a “Whore Menu”. Over time, the audience realizes that the men’s goal is to eat themselves to death.

In an early indication of the where the plot will lead, the four men look at vintage erotica as they competitively slurp oysters and try to offset their baseness with sophisticated references to art and culture. As they plot their own destruction through consumption of flesh, they are careful to feed the turkeys “chocolate, nuts, and cognac” to perfect the flavor.

The audience senses that they want to take in the full sensual pleasure of their demise. But when desires multiply and Marcello suggests they add women to their vacation menu, the pretense begins to drop and various “epiphenomena” appear, each with its root in the men’s shared suicide pact.

Ferreri and co-writer Rafael Azcona use the women as a catalyst to develop each character’s unique psychology through individual behaviors. Fastidious Michel practices ballet and rehearses a simple song on the piano — a song he can never get quite right. Boorish Ugo plans the meals and becomes an increasingly dominant chef, force-feeding Michel to cure him of his gas. Narcissistic Marcello obsesses over a car he’s rebuilding in the garage and seems to tie his personal virility to the vehicle, at one point pleasuring his whore with the manifold.

Finally, Philippe resists the whores to keep a promise he made to his nurse and is only able to perform sexually with schoolteacher Andréa (Ferreol) on the condition that she agree to marry him. As each man dives further into his obsession, he is weighed down by the constant eating. Each point of no return connects the endless buffet to the insatiable adjacent fixation.

Interestingly, it is the prostitutes that cannot bear the purposelessness of the gorging. Despite their occupational self-destruction — an empty reciprocation of an act of desire –they cannot withstand an act that cannot be reasonably explained and yields no benefit. The whore’s life is, after all, at least a ritual with clear rates and returns.

Their departure from the house leaves only Andréa, whose presence is as nurturing as it is destructive. The most interesting dramatic situation of La Grande Bouffe is how all of the men share Andréa and the effect it has on them. I’ll resist spoiling the order and specific manner of deaths here, but the film really hits its stride when the ideal “domestic fairy” (as Andréa calls herself) proves to be every bit as destructive to these men as their excessive eating.

She fully enables the gastronomic suicide, creating an air of paranoia by accommodating everything for everyone. Having promised her hand to Ugo only to placate his need for domesticity (itself rooted in a twisted mother/wet nurse fantasy), she is happy not only to share their meals, but also to be shared among them.

The actors are fully committed to the material, and their investment is critical to the profundity of La Grande Bouffe. As cinematic legends playing irresponsible (possibly insane) man-children, each actor is at his best when he risks the most. The ensemble functions as a cross-section of the vanities of men with power, and there is an unmistakable sense throughout the film that the actors are playing skewed versions of their popular personas (the characters even take the names of the actors that play them).

This is a film largely unconcerned with emotional and spiritual development, but the actors manifest these qualities despite the dominant satirical tone. Only this cast could find grace notes in a film where scatological explosions accompany or replace moments of pathos. As Philippe, Noiret is at his hangdog best, and the film delays his demise in the hope that he can escape the hell of domesticity, but that is precisely his weapon of choice and the prologue tells us as much. So Philippe’s final scene in the garden is Ferreri’s punch line to a two-hour dirty joke, but Noiret makes it unshakably sentimental.

The visual design of the film is also striking as it preserves a proscenium view of the action. At first, this approach foregrounds the strong ensemble, but as the film develops the wide compositions communicate the growing dysfunction and codependency of the characters. The first death is directly preceded by the characters’ decision to live communally by sleeping in the same bed. This contrast — between the vast living spaces of the enormous house and the men’s self-imposed, miserable, excremental confinement –is a vital part of Ferreri’s sardonic look at the culture of consumption.

Another benefit of the reliance on the master shot is that the film ages quite well visually. In fact, a similar “hedonism weekend” film such as William Marsh’s Dead Babies already feels significantly more dated because its visual aesthetic is so hopelessly tied to the trends of its release year (2000). The exception to his standard wide compositions –and one could hardly call this a crack in his design, as it is a conscious choice — is Ferreri’s use of intermittent close-ups that distort the wide interior view and frustrate the spectator’s ability to take in the full ensemble and environment. The audience has become so accustomed to self-directing its attention that when Ferreri fragments the space, via a tragicomic close shot of Philippe’s face, a soft lens close-up of Marcello that actually calls attention to his age, and several close shots of Andréa’s beautiful/dangerous visage, the audience experiences the previously noted creeping of sentiment into satire.

Ferreri is to be praised for not prescribing a desired response to his film, which despite being about the limits of flesh and the inescapability of death, is not classically tragic. These characters aren’t forced to come to terms with their decay. Instead, they willingly accelerate death, perhaps because of a world gone to hell or perhaps because they are past their prime and cannot face a downhill slide. Their welcoming of an exterminating angel is part of the director’s conflicted presentation of the feminine ideal and woman’s culpability in man’s mollification and destruction.

Tales of Ordinary Madness, the other Ferreri film given the re-release treatment, is a far leaner and possibly more successful examination of hell on earth, the voraciousness of man, and the ephemeral nature of sexual satisfaction and romantic salvation. Based on Charles Bukowski’s Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, the film presents a version of Bukowski (here called Charles Serking) as he wanders the darker corners of Los Angeles and connects with the “defeated, the demented and the damned”.

In a bravura performance, Ben Gazzara plays Serking more like a force of nature than a human being. The raw propulsion of his anti-heroism recalls Lee Marvin’s Walker from Point Blank. There’s no logical reason that these men are still up and walking, but the other characters and the audience quickly learn not to question why.

Ferreri maintains his master shot technique, again to great effect here. Employed for social realism rather than satire, its impact is even more meaningful because it allows the spectator to take in the broad hopelessness of the locations and characters. One could argue that this vista keeps at a distance the milieu that was so necessary to Bukowski’s writing, but the tour he gives us has weight because the characters hold nothing back.

The plot is not intensely eventful, as it roughly concerns the impact of Serking’s alcoholism on his career and relationships. There is no grand arc, and a development late in the film that appears to give the writer a chance to clean up and be professional rings false. Perhaps Ferreri intends for it to, as Serking pokes fun at the straight world the entire time he’s in it (which is only a few minutes within the film).

Nevertheless, the film’s overall development is measured by Serking’s encounters with six women, each one representing a distinct desire and unique set of complications. These characters include a runaway thief (Wendy Welles), an ex-wife (Tanya Lopert), a widow (Judith Drake), an unhinged seductress (Susan Tyrrell), a damaged prostitute (Ornella Muti), and an angelic teenager (Katya Berger).

Tales of Ordinary Madness

Tales of Ordinary Madness presents a man so insecure with the world around him that he can never be without the chaos of his drink and these romantic and sexual relationships. As in La Grande Bouffe, codependency abounds. Serking and his women role-play and justify aberrant behaviors because it is easier to do so than to face recovery. The meaning of the film is found in the order of the women he encounters and the growing intensity of effect each one has on him.

The runaway just tempts and robs him, the ex-wife berates him but enables his irresponsibility, and the seductress betrays him by having him arrested after she has her way with him. There are moments of dark humor in each of these encounters, most notably with Vera, the seductress, of whom Serking says in voice-over: “Her brand of psychodrama could make a man a little paranoid”.

But something altogether more serious happens when Serking interacts with the other women. His time with the widow, whom he meets on a lark, leads to perhaps the strongest moment of realization in the film. Ferreri is again careful not to wallow in the misfortune of the character, but his strategic close-up is put to use here and it provides insight into the source of Serking’s torment.

In Cass, the prostitute, Serking finds a figure he wants to protect and to save. His altruism is mixed with lust, but as the relationship deepens and Cass proves to be an even more disturbed character than Serking himself, his interest in her transforms into a rescue mission. There are shades of Taxi Driver in this part of the film. Serking talks a hopeless game, but he has to believe for the good of the world around him that Cass is both worth saving and capable of being saved. To say that her problems have no simple solution is an understatement, and Serking’s undoing is the result of the vulnerability that Cass opens up within him.

The coda of the film, far removed from the grimy streets that define Serking’s world, hints at the possibility of the tortured writer’s deliverance but also introduces yet another object of desire — a naked teenage girl on the beach. Serking clings to her like she alone prevents his world from ending.

La Grande Bouffe and Tales of Ordinary Madness are products of a dark worldview. Neither film assigns origins for the spiritual crises it explores or any direct solutions about how to improve a disintegrating society. Ferreri’s approach allows such a wide range of readings that one could see in his films a straightforward embrace of self-indulgence, a condemnation of worldly desires, or something in between.

What is lasting about the films is their timelessness and lack of causal specificity, which make it nearly impossible for spectators to look at the screen and think, “that could never be me”. When the audience engages with the material in an honest way, these films become interactive tragedies. As one of the prostitutes says in La Grande Bouffe: “Why do you eat if you’re not hungry? It can’t be hunger”. Ferreri sets up the question. The audience is responsible for the answer. Ferreri’s work boldly encourages his audience to consider its own struggles and appetites and in doing so uses the onscreen suffering to create recognition within the audience, even if the characters continue to waste away in ignorance.

The release of these films on DVD should rightfully renew interest in Ferreri’s work. Although the transfers are a bit grainy, the image quality is a significant improvement over previous VHS releases. One major oversight is the failure to include substantial bonus features. Each DVD carries only a sloppily extracted excerpt from Marco Ferreri: The Director Who Came from the Future. Films this historically important, controversial and open to critical discussion are deserving of a feature commentary at the very least.