Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) is generally acknowledged as the cream of the crop when it comes to Sade-themed cinema, specifically adaptations of his work. A few years before its release another Italian filmmaker adapted 120 Days in a much looser and comedic–yet equally significant–perspective: Marco Ferreri’s French language La Grande Bouffe (The Big Feast, 1973). Sade’s tale is an account of four despicable men who retreat to an isolated manor with a group of kidnapped slaves and servants in order to recount stories and perform hundreds of perverse sexual acts. The overindulgence is exhausting. La Grande Bouffe also shows four close friends who escape to a huge, beautiful home in order to partake in slothful, decadent behavior, although in this case the primary focus is not on sexuality and the use of other people’s bodies, but a nearly non-stop gastronomic orgy of gourmet food. The central cast of Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi, playing characters using their own first names, could just as well have been playing the libertines of Sade’s most popular work. In Salò Pasolini cast men who can easily be considered disgusting, while Ferreri’s cast have more charming and dapper qualities. La Grande Bouffe still has much to offer in terms of grotesquerie.
The four libertines of Sade’s work are The Duc of Blangis, his brother The Bishop, The Président de Curval, and the financier Durcet. They are all upper class men of leisure with sexual preoccupations, rape and murder on their minds. There are some similarities among them with the party of characters in La Grande Bouffe, but there is no direct correlation. For example, The Bishop is characterized as delicate and sensitive, traditional feminine descriptors he shares with Michel, a television personality. Michel is coded as gay or bisexual, dressing in pink turtlenecks and stretching his body like a ballet dancer, but sexual preference takes a back seat to distinguished palettes. Marcello, an airplane pilot, is the most vocal about combining decadence with sex, at one point arranging for prostitutes to join them. The other three men are more comfortable in a homosocial environment, although Philippe invites the local school teacher, Andréa (Andréa Ferréol) to join them, deciding quite quickly that he will marry her. This gesture towards a more normative way of life that includes the institution of marriage is illusory in its own way, however. Philippe is at first uncomfortable with Andréa at the same dinner table as the whores because they have “loose morals.”
Philippe’s sense of morality or propriety is quite confused right from the start. He is obviously seeking a mother figure, as he had existed up until that point with his nanny Nicole babying him and pandering to a sort of infantile sexuality he–and the rest of the men–display. Yet if one steps back and observes, Philippe’s marriage notions can be chalked up to role playing, as none of these men expect to live past this elongated last supper. This marriage fantasy relates back to Sade’s writing as the four libertines go through farcical wedding ceremonies with each other’s children.
As the group sit at the dinner table eating what Philippe calls a “a provencal pizza,” Danielle (Solange Blondeau), one of the prostitutes states, “You’re grotesque. Grotesque and disgusting. Why do you eat if you’re not hungry? It’s not possible. It can’t be hunger.” In a way this is quite true. Just as Sade’s libertines have a constant penchant for sex that goes beyond just the physical orgasm, these men have an illogical love for food that doesn’t really have to do with taste or sustenance, but rather base consumption. Earlier on, Marcello and Ugo have a race to see who can eat the most oysters fastest. They divert their attention from a slideshow of erotic photographs they had been analysing to shucking oysters, Ugo eating as he goes along, with Marcello shucking all of them first and then gulping down a bunch of them all at once. The latter wins this time, but it is obvious that the amount of food eaten is more important than how it tastes. These men are observant of the provenance and preparation of the food they eat, but they are only satisfied if they eat more and more until death.
Some of the dishes they eat or mention throughout the film are wild boar, deer imbued with the perfumes of the Couves forest, guinea fowls fed on grain and juniper, three dozen innocent Ardennes cockerels, a dozen chickens, a hind quarter of beef from Charolais, innocent salt-meadow lambs from Mont Saint-Michel, crepes Suzette, crayfish a la Mozart, tortellini with cream and mushrooms, applesauce, chestnut puree… At one point Ugo says to Michel, “If you don’t eat, you won’t die.” Eating is a pathological concern for these men. However, there is still a sense of artistry and aesthetics in their suicide mission. Near the end, Ugo makes a gigantic cake for himself, Philippe, and Andréa, making sure to mention that the eggs circling the culinary structure are a symbol of death. Even as he is on the verge of death, Philippe tells the delivery men to just throw the dead animals they have brought into the garden. Even when all these men are dead, they make sure that good food will go bad.
At one point Danielle stands by a fish tank looking into it and asks, “What is that chicken doing there? In an aquarium? You think that’s normal?” Michel replies, “It’s chicken-fish.” Danielle replies back, “France is beautiful.” This exchange shows the nonsensical, sometimes slapstick quality La Grande Bouffe takes on, showing how Marco Ferreri’s work occasionally borders on the surreal. As he says in an episode of Morceaux de bravoure (“Displays of Bravura”) included on the Arrow Video release of the film, “I really like Buñuel. But I don’t like being compared to Buñuel.” Sometimes his films take on a surreal nature, much like Buñuel’s work, but the comparison is not always true. Ferreri’s earlier film Dillinger is Dead (1969) is far more similar to a surrealist style, while also relating to La Grande Bouffe. Both have elongated scenes of the Buñuel regular Michel Piccoli puttering around kitchens, preparing and eating food, and acting just downright weird. Sometimes Ferreri’s work looks like surrealism moonlighting as crass comedy–or the other way around, yet this relation has existed since the beginning of that artistic movement. Let’s not forget that Salvador Dali once wanted to make a picture with Harpo Marx called Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Humor is just as common in Surrealism as Sade is (for a more in depth look at this relation, I suggest you check out Samm Deighan’s piece for this column from a couple months ago on the work of Man Ray). It can also be argued that much of Sade’s writing is so full of exaggeration that it takes on an almost cartoonish humor.
What La Grande Bouffe might have the most in common with Salò is the word for “to eat.” Mangiare in Italian, and manger in French, there are a number of scenes in both films that include one character commanding another to eat, or talk about eating. In Salò the libertines cry out to their victims to eat human shit, or act like dogs indiscriminately eating food with nails cooked into it. Our ensemble in La Grande Bouffe goad on the prostitutes and Andréa or each other to eat whatever dish might be in front of them. It is a constant mantra that indicates just how decadent and disgusting consumption can become, until this desire for more and more eventually consumes the person.
The structure of Sade’s original novel is often noted for its repetition, and this cyclical nature is apparent in Ferreri’s work too. 120 Days is filled with hundreds of perverse sexual fantasies, while La Grande Bouffe lines up one exorbitant meal with the next. Not surprisingly, the digestive cycle comes to mind. Salò has a preoccupation with shit–epitomized in the sequence titled “circle of shit”–whereas La Grande Bouffe is more concerned with the childish humor of flatulence, which comes into play with Michel’s death. The way in which a toilet basically explodes like a geyser onto Marcello is simultaneously hilarious and disgusting. The film equates life with a circle of gastronomic life–or perhaps a death spiral.