The Decadence of La Grande Bouffe
By Becca Rohrer
The 1973 French-Italian film, La Grande Bouffe, directed by Marco Ferreri depicts the decadence of sophistication, sex, and eating. The movie focuses on four French protagonists: Marcello, Michel, Philippe, and Ugo. They all go to Philippe’s unused villa with the goal of eating themselves to death. While at the villa they engage in various acts of debauchery including hiring prostitutes and overeating frivolous meals ranging from venison, wine, and even three different versions of pâté in the shape of Dome of St. Peter. Throughout the film, sexual relations and gluttonous eating are illustrative of decadence and the social, emotional, and mental downfall of these four protagonists.
Food plays a significant role in this film. Even the title of the film translates into the large food or grub. Practically every scene involves some image of food ranging from the delivery of fine meats to the final scene where Andrea makes the diabetic Philippe a gelatinous dessert shaped like a pair of breasts that causes him to die. The character of Andrea adds an interesting dimension to La Grande Bouffe. Andrea herself seems to represent indulgence in both food and sex. The film has scenes where she yells about being hungry, and she can continually eat more. Throughout the film she has sexual relations with all four protagonists, twice seemingly forcing sex on them. A particularly vivid clip shows the misogynist Marcello engaging in sexual acts with Andrea as she is eating a turkey leg. She continues to eat the turkey even after he demands her to stop. Andrea plays a crucial role in the film in regard to the main male characters. She decides to stay until all four protagonists die actually helping them in their efforts. This plotline intensifies the scene where she kills Philippe with the breast shaped dessert, a direct representation of the deadly nature of unbounded sex and eating. The foods that are prepared are never simple but often elaborate meals eaten solely to indulge at all times. The emphasis on refined foods only adds to the decay that occurs throughout the evening. On the four protagonists’ journey from life to death, sex acts as the existential intermediate level. The food present for the weekend symbolizes this overly self-indulgence display of decadence.
La Grande Bouffe is filled with contrasting images of feasting, wealth, and decadence. The still chosen shows one of the dinners that occurred at the villa while in the forefront Marcello, a womanizing pilot, is kissing one of the hired prostitutes. Ferreri consistently uses forefront images and background scenes that juxtapose the true purpose of the weekend. All four protagonists come from wealthy occupations and backgrounds but are unsatisfied with the current state of their lives. They have all gained a taste for luxurious foods as well as the knowledge of social conduct around a table. Leon Kass in his book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature, describes both learned civility and the nature of human’s sexual desires. The scene shown illustrates the group around the table; an ideal that Kass says represents the meal. Kass discusses how the sharing of food around the table leads to similar behaviors saying, “Thus we silently acknowledge our mutual commitment to share not only some food but also commensurate forms of commensal behavior” (Kass Ch. 4: 4). Kass’s theory directly applies to this film but as seen in the still the agreed upon behavior does not correspond with Kass’ definition of civility.
This image remains particularly striking because of the civil table manners in the background. The characters at the table correspond with what Kass discusses about civility and meals. Similarly, right before Marcello and the prostitute leave the room to move behind the curtain a large, elaborate plate of turkey had just been brought out by Marcello himself. This physically connects the art of eating with Marcello’s instinctual sexual desires. The two actually take the meat with them when they leave to sleep together only to return later for second helpings of the turkey. The image also utilizes color to highlight the underlying theme of sex and passion. The red lamp over the table shows that even though the characters seem to be enjoying a decorous meal their minds are occupied by sexual appetites and thoughts. The framing of the lamp provides an important image. The red lamp cuts the portrait of the woman in half only allowing the bottom half to be shown. I find this framed shot significant because it alludes their weekend being solely about feeding their need for sex and not about love or personal connections. By including the forefront image not only are sex and food once again coupled but also their social positions outside the villa and their acts of depravity within the villa are contrasted.
Food and sex are constantly displayed in La Grande Bouffe in rather vulgar and sickening images. The film embodies societal and individual decadence through demonstrating food as a symbol of depravity.