Color, 1973, 130m.
Directed by Marco Ferreri
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, Ugo Tognazzi, Andréa Ferréol
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/B HD and R1/R2 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Nouveaux (UK R1 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Image (US R1 NTSC)
At the height of his career, controversial Italian auteur Marco Ferreri jolted arthouse and festival audiences with La Grande Bouffe (aka Blow-Out), a visually sumptuous study of modern excess and ennui. Not exactly a pleasant or traditional cinematic experience, this is bold but darkly funny territory where adventurous treasure seekers will find many rewards.
Four men of means in '70s Paris decide to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life for an isolated retreat in a country chateau. A cook (Tognazzi), judge (Noiret), pilot (Mastroianni), and TV producer (Piccoli), they seem to have plenty to live for (and bear the same names as the actors playing them), but the numbing exhaustion of modern life has worn them down. They eat gluttonously from their table, gaze lazily at images of vintage pornography, and bring in prostitutes to satisfy their sexual appetites. Why all this indulgence? Simple! It's a lavish suicide scheme whereby the men will literally die from too much pleasure, their vulnerable bodies unable to cope with the avalanche of material intake. Marcello becomes taken with the presence a lovely, full-bodied schoolteacher, Andrea (Ferréol), whose sweet demeanor conceals a feminine appetite easily the equal of her peers. How far will the madness go, and who will be left to tell the tale?
Though definitely not a film to pull out at dinner time, La Grande Bouffe has mellowed somewhat with age and hardly seems to merit the NC-17 rating slapped on it by the MPAA in the late '90s, though the frankness of some of Mastroianni's more carnal scenes are still a little surreal considering the international prestige value of the actor himself. The opportunity to observe four of Europe's finest actors at the peak of their form is an opportunity to be cherished all by itself, and Ferreri relishes the opportunity to simply train his camera on his performers and let them go to work. The film obviously had a heavy influence on Peter Greenaway, who provided a very similar leading role for Ferreol in his A Zed and Two Noughts and duplicated this film's gimmick of naming its protagonists after the actors portraying them in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (though three of the original actors eventually dropped out of the latter project), which shares a similar fixation with the relationship between food, sex, and death. Ferreri's semi-regular composer, Philippe Sarde, contributes another sparse, intelligent score eventually released as part of a Ferreri compilation.
Long available on home video in Great Britain where it also enjoyed a hefty theatrical run, La Grande Bouffe was barely seen in the United States outside of one-off screenings until an American VHS was issued in the mid-'90s from Water Bearer in a slightly letterboxed, washed-out transfer from the UK PAL source. In 2000, Image premiered it on DVD clearly taken from cleaner, more colorful source materials, though inexplicably the transfer is full frame with some slivers of information missing from the right and left sides of the image. The optional yellow English subtitles are fine and legible except they leave some pertinent chunks of dialogue untranslated at the beginning. In 2006, Nouveaux upgraded the film on the visual front with an anamorphic widescreen DVD, though it goes in the other direction by zooming the original 1.66:1 compositions to 1.78:1, which at least looks a tad better in compositional terms. Two years later, the film appeared from Koch Lorber from what appears to be the same transfer as part of an eight-disc Ferreri DVD set, which is highly recommended.
However, for sheer quality of presentation the clear winner is the 2015 version from Arrow Films, a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD set with identical contents in the US and UK. The 1.66:1 framing is perfect, the image quality is vastly superior, and the rich, thickness of the shadows in the darker scenes now has the appropriately decaying atmosphere felt in theatrical screenings. The film has an odd texture that's both gritty and elegant with frequently odd, saturated colors, and this version does it justice with an HD rendering that should make Ferreri fans very, very happy. The optional English subtitles are excellent as well for the standard French language track, which sounds great.
It's hard to believe a film with this level of an international reputation would have gone this long without a real special edition, but the Arrow release more than makes up for it with a heaping plateful of goodies. "The Farcical Movie: Marco Ferreri" is an episode of the French TV program Morceaux de bravoure, broadcast in April of 1975 with director Georges Paumier spending 27 minutes chatting with the filmmaker about his approach to this "comedy film" after opining, "He seduces, he annoys, he irritates, he delights, he divides, and lots of other things besides" while Ferreri puffs on a smoke behind him. Some of the favorite films cited include Freaks, Tex Avery cartoons, and the Mexican films of Luis Buñuel, whom Ferreri insists is a very different type of director. Then the program Pour le cinema goes behind the scenes on the set of the film for 11 minutes with all of the four male leads and Ferreri briefly interviewed and seen shooting some of the feasting scenes.
"Colours around a Festival" is a funny TV piece aired just after the film's shocking Cannes debut and during the launch of its ad campaign, complete with a controversial print campaign involving a cartoon of the actors' derrieres. Here we have Ferreri, Piccoli, Noiret, Tognazzi, and Sarde being interviewed for just under five minutes (and partially obscured by a huge cactus) in which they dispute the accuracy of those cartoon butts and talk about their pride in the finished film and the logistics of "the made-up sound of farts." Sarde even takes a minute to hum his main theme, too. In "Forming Ferreri," Italian film scholar Pasquale Iannone offers a new overview of the filmmaker's work up to and including this film for 18 minutes; it's a solid, informative introduction putting Ferreri in context with the other groundbreaking directors of the period, and hopefully Arrow will tackle another Ferreri title (cough cough, The Last Woman, cough cough) to pick up where this leaves off. Iannone also provides a selected audio commentary for five scenes from the film, which can either be played separately or in one 27-minute reel as he breaks down the major themes of the film and offers bios for the main actors. Finally a vintage episode of another French show, De soleil d'azur, presents Ferreri's press conference for the film's volatile Cannes screening, surrounded by the cast and running just under two minutes. Ferreri's in fiery form here as he screams at a journalist about fabricated quotes about the film's stance on consumerism. The package comes with a reversible sleeve with the original poster art and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx, plus a liner notes booklet with an illustrated essay by Johnny Mains. Tasty!