This is a film that rivals Pasolini’s Salo Or The 120 Days Of Sodom in terms of its sheer lunatic depravity. If it weren’t for its moments of comic relief -and believe me there are plenty, even if one cringes after laughing at each instance- it would probably have disintegrated into oblivion half way into it’s two plus hours.
La Grande Bouffe starts promisingly. The central protagonists, introduced via a series of economically edited vignettes, are none other than some of the finest -and their performances here are very fine indeed- actors in Europe of the period. Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Ugo Tognazzi. Interestingly they all use their actual first names in the film.
The lives of these four men, who seem to be respected professionals – a cook, a pilot, a TV producer and a judge – intersect as they meet up for two days of ritual excess at a neglected mansion (belonging to the cook Ugo) with a large garden, walled in by various buildings including a school, presumably in some central urban area of a French town.
The first thing we notice is the unusually well equipped kitchen, with multiple gas stoves, sinks and a large walk in fridge. It looks like the owner caters for some extensive soirees. The remainder of the house is filled with fascinating artifacts. Strange taxidermy displays, abundant fish tanks and all manner of exotic and oriental furniture, statues and bric-a-brac.
A white van arrives -not the last trip it will make to the house in the next 48 hours- and two men in butcher’s aprons get out and open the back doors to reveal it is filled with hanging meat. They bring carcass after carcass into the house. Chickens, pigs and lambs pile up on the stainless steel counters tops of the kitchen. It looks like they are catering for a large party. We learn that the party will consist in essence solely of the four men, and that they intend to eat themselves to death.
Ugo directs his accomplices in the kitchen, as they prepare a series of extravagant dishes keeping all supplied with an endless stream of morsels as they lounge around the house on plush antique furniture -never without a mouthful of food- listening to a particular popular jazz record on the gramophone player. This tune becomes a curious motif throughout the film. We hear Michel (the TV producer), at various stages humming it, casually playing it by ear on the piano.
A party of school children and their teacher from the neighboring school drop in on the proceedings and the cook demonstrates to all his culinary genius. The teacher (Andrea Ferreol) so enraptured with all the delicious food decides she must return later that evening. As this is their last shot at supreme decadence, they also call up three prostitutes to join them. So the party of four is now extended to eight, four of which will survive the ordeal.
True to form, the men do indeed eventually eat themselves to death, with the exception of the pilot who dies under stranger circumstances.
A series of Bunuel-like surrealistic tableaux vivants play out amidst the gaudy surroundings. Michel does warm up exercises in a leotard –later on we see him here fully dressed and bloated trying the same exercises with decidedly less ease- in the mirrored dance gym upstairs before beginning his next culinary deluge. He puts the finishing touches on a giant cake, which one of the naked blond prostitutes embraces, smearing her torso with chocolate icing looking like feces. This prompts a chapter of unspeakable food games. In the kitchen, an uncooked chicken is gleefully tossed in a fish tank. Marcello serves up a bizarre bunch of baby cocktail chickens on skewers terminating with tiny cast skulls.
The plump schoolteacher Andrea returns that evening in a rather lascivious blue see-through dress. She and Philippe (the judge) become infatuated with each other in-between mouthfuls, frequently retiring to the bedchamber upstairs. Rounds of extreme sex follow rounds of extreme eating. It’s becoming an orgy of food and sex. Marcello (the pilot) has his way with Andrea -minutes after Philippe- while watching their frantic naked bodies reflected in a large gilded mirror in-front of them. He also molests the prostitutes in various uncompromising positions, including in the seat of his hobby sports car- his other fetish besides eating and sex.
From their veritable food factory in the kitchen, they continue to turn out an endless variety of decadent meat dishes, desserts and mountainous platters of solid sculpted mashed potato. Michel is starting to have severe stomach problems. He farts uncontrollably and at great length. He farts continuously as one of the prostitutes straddles him on a bed upstairs, amidst plates of partially eaten food, squeezing the gas out of his bowels.
The proceedings become so preposterous that they start to take on the logic of a bad dream. One of the toilets literally explodes and a tide of shit floods the room as Marcello, rapt by fits of uncontrollable laughter, wades through the muck.
The prostitutes have left the party, but Andrea remains. With glacial slowness, the four men meet their protracted demises over the course of the next day. Michel is the first one to go, basically perishing in a giant shit-splattering fart after one too many platters of mashed potato. The survivors put the dead in the walk in fridge. Marcello -discovered frozen to death in his sports car the next morning after a snowfall- and Michel’s corpses stare at us through the frosted glass in the background, as the remaining three protagonists make a toast with champagne over their newly prepared cake looking like a chocolate mosque.
Their numbers are down to Andrea and Philippe after the excruciating death of Ugo. Philippe dies in an unspectacular way, sitting on a bench in the garden, after finishing his half of a final dessert prepared by Andrea looking like two large gelatinous breasts. The sole survivor (or maybe not) she wanders back into the house, seen in full from a distance, navigating a pack of neighborhood mongrel dogs looking for scraps.