At the 1973 Cannes film festival, Ingrid Bergman pronounced ‘La Grande Bouffe’ the most ‘sordid’ movie she had ever watched. Some reports even claim that she vomited after watching it; and who can blame her? The movie, written and directed by Marco Ferreri centres around four men who decide to collectively eat themselves to death in a desolate mansion.
Throughout the film, the audience is privy to nonstop gorging, belching, flatulence, faeces and other vulgarity. The four friends, Marcello, Michel, Philippe and Ugo, are clearly from the upper classes of society and for some reason are disillusioned by their wealth, privileges and ability to have anything and anyone they want (go figure!). In any case, they choose to end their meaningless lives in decadence, indulging in enormous feasts and nightly orgies until one by one they begin to pass away. It’s a pretty sick and shocking film but to some extent, it had to be in order to make its point.
Numerous reviews have been written about the film, alluding to the the futility of life and the corruption of the human body. Few reviews have dealt solely with the feminist angle of the film and that is what I hope to examine in this article.
Despite its vulgarity, the film does have some interesting themes, particularly, its portrayal of women. The main female character in the film is Andrea, a school teacher who is invited by the men to join them for dinner one night. Andrea is a corpulent woman who as the movie progresses shows that she has an appetite that surpasses that of the men, both for food and for sex. By the second half of the movie, she is engaged to Philippe, but is sharing a bed with all four men. We regularly see her lying naked in bed stuffing her face with chicken legs or clawing at one of the men, begging for sex.
In addition to Andrea, we briefly meet Nicole at the start of the movie, a much older, and also plump, female relative of Philippe. We are not told what their relationship is but it is clear that she has been Philippe’s caregiver since his parents passed away. Shockingly, at the end of the scene we witness her engaging in sexual activity with him. She attempts to seduce Philippe by unbuttoning her blouse, he attempts to fend off the seduction by buttoning it up again, only to give in at the end. Here we see the classic imagery of the woman as the temptress and the man, as helpless and giving in to his desires. Forbidden fruit anyone?
It’s no accident that Andrea, the schoolteacher and Nicole the caregiver, are both portrayed as loose women who clearly defy the conventional characteristics of their formal roles to engage in unconventional sexual activity with the male characters. Teachers and caregivers are usually associated with morality, while Andrea and Nicole are clearly associated with the opposite of that. This is one of the clearest and most interesting ‘feminist’ features of the film – the way in which women’s roles, associated stereotypes and traditional expectations are subverted.
Enter the prostitutes, three girls who are also invited by the men to share in their feasting and orgies. Prostitutes are generally associated with decadence, vice and immorality, yet in this film, the prostitutes decide to leave the house after one night with the men as they do not want to continue to engage in the decadence. This is in contrast to the teacher who decides to stay on and indulge. Also, in contrast to Nicole and Andrea, the prostitutes are thin. Arguably, Ferreri is trying to draw a link between the corpulence of women and the voracious appetite for vice and decadence.
The link between corpulence and sexuality in art dates back to the stone ages with discoveries of clay, limestone and even woolly mammoth tusk figurines of corpulent women with massive breasts, large stomachs, wide hips and generous thighs. However, it was with the introduction of gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity, that medieval art began depicting corpulent men and women as sinners and slender people as pious disciples of Christ.
That said, it is difficult to get a sense of the message intended in this film (if any) because Ferreri ‘matches’ the corrupt depiction of corpulent women with the ‘noble’ occupation of teaching and caregiving and then throws a spanner in the works with the image of ‘morally superior’ prostitutes who (if we make comparisons to traditional historical representations) are more akin to symbols of ascetic life.
In one scene, the men are seated at the dinner table, gorging and watching a pornographic slideshow. The addition of naked women to this feasting debases the female characters further. In another scene, Michel throws food on the naked body of one of the prostitutes and repeatedly says “the body of woman is vanity”. To me, it seems that he was saying that the body of woman is futile, purely there for pleasure. This also has biblical references; apart from the woman as the Eve-like temptress, the body of a woman is for sin and pleasure, serving no other real purpose. Or alternatively, the ‘vanity’ he was referring to could have been the vanity of men in the conquest of the female body.
I do understand that that the roles of the women in this film serve to support the main themes of the movie (namely that of surrealism, mortality and corruption). The film is undoubtedly thought-provoking and discusses many of the social and moral concerns of the time. However, the important question for this article is, are these types of films a step forward for feminism or a step backward?
Some may argue that giving women sexually progressive roles and roles that break the boundaries of teacher or caregiver or prostitute support feminism. Others may argue that these roles could also be seen as very negative and derogatory, while perpetuating the image that women hide their ‘immorality’ behind the facade of conventional roles. A large extent of how one sees feminism in these movies depends on how one defines feminism. The truth is, it’s difficult for me to support either position, because I haven’t been able to define feminism for myself.
It’s certainly shocking though, and somewhat offensive, to see that every woman in the film is portrayed in a sexual manner. One may argue that the men too are portrayed sexually, but somehow the male characters are perceived as tragic. Having realized the fruitlessness of life, they decide to take their own lives, living their last days in pleasure. In the end, they die and that makes the audience sorry for them to some extent. The main female character on the other hand, indulges in pleasure for the sake of it and one isn’t able to feel sorry for her. She acts as both caregiver and lover to the men, sure of her place in the house, of her importance and her purpose of being there. In fact, I think many male viewers, and possibly female ones as well, would just label her a slut and be done with it.
However, Andrea could also be perceived as a very strong character, who knows what she wants, feels free to choose and do as she pleases, without concern for convention, morality or judgement. Andrea could be construed of as incredibly progressive for a woman, even in today’s context. However, it would be difficult to say with certainty that Andrea is a feminist because once again, that would depend largely on how one defines feminism. But this is precisely why the film is so interesting; because it forces one to look at women’s identity and feminism from many angles. The confusion that results from multiple layers and contradictions in the film’s portrayal of women also represents the perplexity of feminism and the struggle with pinning down an accurate description of the term.
Although the film is mired with these feminist contradictions and it’s almost impossible to decipher Ferreri’s intentions with his female characters, it certainly is thought provoking. While not especially known for the feminist issues it brings to light, it is an interesting film for the women of today to consider. In particular, it would be interesting to compare Andrea and the other female characters we encounter in the film to the representations of feminists we have watched in more modern films. We may be surprised to find that we think Andrea is more of a feminist than the seemingly independent , open-minded female characters we have to come to so conveniently identify with feminism. This film is a must watch simply because it raises the questions about feminism that we have stopped asking. Five stars.
Photo credits: jdm Film Reviews, Movie Mail, improvisedlife.com