I never intended the Ibishblog to be strictly about politics, but since I started it a few months ago the diplomatic and political action, especially regarding Palestine, has been so fast and furious, and important, that I have had the opportunity to write about little else. I should add that this has been to the considerable dismay of some of my increasingly agitated readers from the stridency school, but also to very warm approval from many, many more. But this evening I watched a film I had never seen before and that merits some commentary.
“La Grande Bouffe” (1973) directed by Marco Ferreri is, by any standards, a pretty extraordinary movie. It is most certainly not for the faint of heart, or the faint of stomach, and most definitely is not for everyone. It is, however, one of the more notable investigations of immoderation, excess and self-destruction ever committed to celluloid. The film is a chronicle of a weekend escapade in which four middle-aged French gentleman barricade themselves into a villa stocked with supplies with the expressed intention of eating themselves to death. The result is so unsparingly repulsive that I think this film would be a really useful diet-aid, and very quickly induces the desire never to touch another bite.
If this scenario sounds faintly familiar, that’s because it’s pretty obviously directly inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s demented masterpiece “120 Days of Sodom,” in which four crazed libertines seclude themselves, a team of servants and a small army of victims in a remote castle for the purposes of unremitting sexual excess, brutality and, ultimately, most gruesome murders. Its own author quite rightly described the book as “the most impure tale ever told,” and it is remarkable that more than 200 years since no one, including de Sade himself in any of his later works, has been able to come close to its extravagant darkness and horror. The result, it should be added, because of its remorseless black humor and incongruously lighthearted and foppish narration, often – but certainly not always – bears more similarity to Tom and Jerry (or, perhaps, Itchy and Scratchy) than to anything genuinely frightening.
Although it remains unequaled in both excessiveness and foulness, “120 Days” has, nonetheless, inspired a very large number of artistic homages and derivative works. “La Grande Bouffe” is most certainly high on that list. While Sade mixed large amounts of sex and violence with a small amount of excessive eating in his text, “La Grande Bouffe” reverses this formula, with a little bit of (very strange and unsatisfying for its protagonists) sex and almost no violence combined with endless and increasingly stomach-churning binge eating. Where other hungers demand to be satisfied, in certain narratives sex must be rendered fundamentally empty, unsatisfying or strangely negative. In David Cronenberg’s brilliant “Crash,” about a plausible but nonexistent car crash fetish, almost every scene is sexually explicit, but none of it in the least erotic; or, for example, in HBO’s popular and occasionally softcore series “True Blood,” genital sexuality, as opposed to vampiric “feeding,” is either unsatisfying, disappointing or has some kind of manifestly negative consequences for its protagonists.
“La Grande Bouffe” is certainly a satire, and a rather vicious one at that, but it is also at heart a surrealist film (of course all surrealism is satirical, but not vice versa). Other than the thematically direct but culturally remote influence of de Sade, the film’s most obvious pedigree unmistakably comes from the greatest surrealist filmmaker of all time, and one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Luis Buñuel. “La Grande Bouffe” was made one year after Buñuel’s late masterpiece (one of many), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and is filled with echoes and references to that classic. In a sense, it is an inversion of the logic of “The Discreet Charm,” given that in Buñuel’s film, the group of bourgeois in question begin the narrative by sitting down to a meal which they are never, even until the last frame, allowed to finish no matter how many times they sit down to dine. In “La Grande Bouffe” the bourgeoisie, once they start stuffing themselves, never stop until they’re all dead from the over-indulgence.
“La Grande Bouffe” is also strongly linked to an earlier Buñuel classic, “The Exterminating Angel,” in which a large group of bourgeois find themselves unable to leave a house following a lavish after-opera dinner party, and whose social mores and basic morals slowly disintegrate as the days pass with them entirely cut off from the outside world. When they finally realize the reason they can’t leave, and no one else can enter, the house, is that they forgot to formally say goodnight in the approved bourgeois manner, they reenact the final moments of the original dinner party, intone the magic spell, and are released from bondage, but only having reached the brink of cannibalism. Buñuel later said that he regretted pulling back from that final degeneration. “La Grande Bouffe” doesn’t cross that line either, but the implications are there throughout: these maniacs are consuming themselves, and each other, and the theme is unmistakable early on and only intensifies until the final macabre and extremely surrealistic scene of meat delivery men dancing around the garden with carcasses. And, one of the four suicidal over-eaters tries to leave but dies in the effort: once you go down this road, there is no exit.
Both of these Buñuel films also contain strong implications of coprophilia and coprophagia, the latter of which is very strongly implied throughout the latter stages of “La Grande Bouffe,” which obviously makes it increasingly difficult to watch with any degree of comfort. This is obviously a not-so-subtle commentary on the true nature of the “haute cuisine” with which the protagonists are inordinately and pathologically obsessed. This theme of coprophagia not only strongly links “La Grande Bouffe” with these and other Buñuel films, but also with that other great film adaptation of “120 Days” (with all due respect to the ending of Dali and Buñuel’s “L’Age d’Or”), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma.” Without going into unnecessarily disturbing details, part three of Pasolini’s great and terrible accomplishment (which can only really be understood when read contrapuntally to the large number of idealistic works that proceeded “Salò”) goes over that line with appalling gusto and almost unforgivable abandon. If these two films weren’t obviously thematically linked in the broadest sense, this bizarre coprophagic motif, and the fact that both are European satires from the mid-70s, would be enough to suggest a significant artistic connection between the two.
However, while the Buñuel films mentioned above and “Salò” are all heavily, unambiguously and unmistakably political in their satirical content, “La Grande Bouffe” is a lot less pointed and, therefore, fundamentally less rich and engaging. There is, to be sure, a strong sense of alienation and the whole plot is driven by the dissatisfaction of its bourgeois characters with their ostensibly luxurious and successful lives. But the political register is, at best, subtly implicit in “La Grande Bouffe.” It shares with its four self-destructive protagonists an infantile quality, and a certain affiliation with the utmost forms of regression. While this is hardly a Farley brothers dumbass extravaganza or a “Family Guy” exercise in simplistic potty humor, I doubt there has ever been a film with more, and more extravagantly loud and sustained, farting. One of the characters literally farts himself to death. Another ends up gurgling on his back on the kitchen table and dies while being simultaneously fed by one character and manually gratified by another, probably the most thorough-going psychological regression possible for a weaned and sexually mature adult. “La Grande Bouffe” may not be overtly Marxist in the manner of Pasolini or Buñuel, but it certainly is shamelessly Freudian.
The irony, of course, is that the Freudian text that most informs all of these works is “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which Freud acknowledged that beyond the pleasure-seeking libido lies a very different impulse and imperative driving the subject towards repetition, aggression, compulsion, and self-destruction. The point here is not whether or not one agrees with Freud’s analysis in part or in whole, but rather to recognize that for many decades of the last century surrealist, Marxian, satirical and other fundamentally subversive works of art, including all the films mentioned in this posting, were profoundly influenced by psychoanalytic theory, particularly ideas deriving from “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” This is especially true of works like “La Grande Bouffe” that investigate the self destructiveness of libidinal obsessions, and throughout its narrative the dead — from dead parents to dead animals to dead friends — drive forward the living… towards death.