C'est dégueulasse!: Matters of Taste and “La Grande bouffe” (1973)

Jacqueline Louise Dutton


Dégueulasse is French slang for “disgusting,” derived in 1867 from the French verb dégueuler, to vomit. Despite its vulgar status, it is frequently used by almost every French speaker, including foreigners and students. It is also a term that has often been employed to describe the 1973 cult film, La Grande bouffe [Blow Out], by Marco Ferreri, which recounts in grotesque detail the gastronomic suicide of four male protagonists. This R-rated French-Italian production was booed, and the director spat on, at the 26th Cannes Film Festival—the Jury President, Ingrid Bergman, said it was the most “sordid” film she’d ever seen, and is even reported to have vomited after watching it (Télérama). Ferreri nevertheless walked away with the Prix FIPRESCI, awarded by the Federation of International Critics, and it is apparently the largest grossing release in the history of Paris with more than 700,000 entries in Paris and almost 3 million in France overall.

Scandal sells, and this was especially seemingly so 1970s, when this film was avidly consumed as part of an unholy trinity alongside Bernardo Bertolucci’s Le Dernier Tango à Paris [Last Tango in Paris] (1972) and Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain [The Mother and the Whore] (1973). Fast forward forty years, though, and at the very moment when La Grande bouffe was being commemorated with a special screening on the 2013 Cannes Film Festival programme, a handful of University of Melbourne French students in a subject called “Matters of Taste” were boycotting the film as an unacceptable assault to their sensibilities. Over the decade that I have been showing the film to undergraduate students, this has never happened before.

In this article, I want to examine critically the questions of taste that underpin this particular predicament. Analysing firstly the intradiegetic portrayal of taste in the film, through both gustatory and aesthetic signifiers, then the choice of the film as a key element in a University subject corpus, I will finally question the (dis)taste displayed by certain students, contextualising it as part of an ongoing socio-cultural commentary on food, sex, life, and death. Framed by a brief foray into Bourdieusian theories of taste, I will attempt to draw some conclusions on the continual renegotiation of gustatory and aesthetic tastes in relation to La Grande bouffe, and thereby deepen understanding of why it has become the incarnation of dégueulasse today.

Theories of Taste

In the 1970s, the parameters of “good” and “bad” taste imploded in the West, following political challenges to the power of the bourgeoisie that also undermined their status as the contemporary arbiters of taste. This revolution of manners was particularly shattering in France, fuelled by the initial success of the May 68 student, worker, and women’s rights movements (Ross). The democratization of taste served to legitimize desires different from those previously dictated by bourgeois norms, enabling greater diversity in representing taste across a broad spectrum. It was reflected in the cultural products of the 1970s, including cinema, which had already broken with tradition during the New Wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and became a vector for political ideologies as well as radical aesthetic choices (Smith).

Commonly regarded as “the decade that taste forgot,” the 1970s were also a time for re-assessing the sociology of taste, with the magisterial publication of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979, English trans. 1984). As Bourdieu refuted Kant’s differentiation between the legitimate aesthetic, so defined by its “disinterestedness,” and the common aesthetic, derived from sensory pleasures and ordinary meanings, he also attempted to abolish the opposition between the “taste of reflection” (pure pleasure) and the “taste of sense” (facile pleasure) (Bourdieu 7). In so doing, he laid the foundations of a new paradigm for understanding the apparently incommensurable choices that are not the innate expression of our unique personalities, but rather the product of our class, education, family experiences—our habitus. Where Bourdieu’s theories align most closely with the relationship between taste and revulsion is in the realm of aesthetic disposition and its desire to differentiate: “good” taste is almost always predicated on the distaste of the tastes of others.

Tastes (i.e. manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes. In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (“sick-making”) of the tastes of others. “De gustibus non est disputandum”: not because “tous les goûts sont dans la nature,” but because each taste feels itself to be natural—and so it almost is, being a habitus—which amounts to rejecting others as unnatural and therefore vicious. Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different life-styles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes (Bourdieu).

Although today’s “Gen Y” Melbourne University students are a long way from 1970s French working class/bourgeois culture clashes, these observations on taste as the corollary of distaste are still salient tools of interpretation of their attitudes towards La Grande bouffe. And, just as Bourdieu effectively deconstructed Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement and the 18th “century of taste” notions of universality and morality in aesthetics (Dickie, Gadamer, Allison) in his groundbreaking study of distinction, his own theories have in turn been subject to revision in an age of omnivorous consumption and eclectic globalisation, with various cultural practices further destabilising the hierarchies that formerly monopolized legitimate taste (Sciences Humaines, etc). Bourdieu’s theories are still, however, useful for analysing La Grande bouffe given the contemporaneous production of these texts, as they provide a frame for understanding (dis)taste both within the filmic narrative and in the wider context of its reception.

Taste and Distaste in La Grande bouffe

To go to the cinema is like to eat or shit, it’s a physiological act, it’s urban guerrilla […] Enough with feelings, I want to make a physiological film (Celluloid Liberation Front).

Marco Ferreri’s statements about his motivations for La Grande bouffe coincide here with Bourdieu’s explanation of taste: clearly the director wished to depart from psychological cinema favoured by contemporary critics and audiences and demonstrated his distaste for their preference. There were, however, psychological impulses underpinning his subject matter, as according to film academic Maurizio Viano, Ferrari had a self-destructive, compulsive relation to food, having been forced to spend a few weeks in a Swiss clinic specialising in eating disorders in 1972–1973 (Viano). Food issues abound in his biography. In an interview with Tullio Masoni, the director declared: “I was fat as a child”; his composer Phillipe Sarde recalls the grand Italian-style dinners that he would organise in Paris during the film; and, two of the film’s stars,  Marcello Mastroianni and Ugo Tognazzi, actually credit the conception of La Grande bouffe to a Rabelaisian feast prepared by Tognazzi, during which Ferreri exclaimed “hey guys, we are killing ourselves!” (Viano 197–8). Evidently, there were psychological factors behind this film, but it was nevertheless the physiological aspects that Ferreri chose to foreground in his creation.

The resulting film does indeed privilege the physiological, as the protagonists fornicate, fart, vomit, defecate, and—of course—eat, to wild excess. The opening scenes do not betray such sordid sequences; the four bourgeois men are introduced one by one so as to establish their class credentials as well as display their different tastes. We first encounter Ugo (Tognazzi), an Italian chef of humble peasant origins, as he leaves his elegant restaurant “Le Biscuit à soupe” and his bourgeois French wife, to take his knives and recipes away with him for the weekend. Then Michel (Piccoli), a TV host who has pre-taped his shows, gives his apartment keys to his 1970s-styled baba-cool daughter as he bids her farewell, and packs up his cleaning products and rubber gloves to take with him. Marcello (Mastroianni) emerges from a cockpit in his aviator sunglasses and smart pilot’s uniform, ordering his sexy airhostesses to carry his cheese and wine for him as he takes a last longing look around his plane. Finally, the judge and owner of the property where the action will unfold, Philippe (Noiret), is awoken by an elderly woman, Nicole, who feeds him tea and brioche, pestering him for details of his whereabouts for the weekend, until he demonstrates his free will and authority, joking about his serious life, and lying to her about attending a legal conference in London. Having given over power of attorney to Nicole, he hints at the finality of his departure, but is trying to wrest back his independence as his nanny exhorts him not to go off with whores. She would rather continue to “sacrifice herself for him” and “keep it in the family,” as she discreetly pleasures him in this scene.

Scholars have identified each protagonist as an ideological signifier. For some, they represent power—Philippe is justice—and three products of that ideology: Michel is spectacle, Ugo is food, and Marcello is adventure (Celluloid Liberation Front). For others, these characters are the perfect incarnations of the first four Freudian stages of sexual development: Philippe is Oedipal, Michel is indifferent, Ugo is oral, and Marcello is impotent (Tury & Peter); or even the four temperaments of Hippocratic humouralism: Philippe the phlegmatic, Michel the melancholic, Ugo the sanguine, and Marcello the choleric (Calvesi, Viano). I would like to offer another dimension to these categories, positing that it is each protagonist’s taste that prescribes his participation in this gastronomic suicide as well as the means by which he eventually dies.

Before I develop this hypothesis, I will first describe the main thrust of the narrative. The four men arrive at the villa at 68 rue Boileau where they intend to end their days (although this is not yet revealed). All is prepared for the most sophisticated and decadent feasting imaginable, with a delivery of the best meats and poultry unfurling like a surrealist painting. Surrounded by elegant artworks and demonstrating their cultural capital by reciting Shakespeare, Brillat-Savarin, and other classics, the men embark on a race to their death, beginning with a competition to eat the most oysters while watching a vintage pornographic slideshow. There is a strong thread of masculine athletic engagement in this film, as has been studied in detail by James R. Keller in “Four Little Caligulas: La Grande bouffe, Consumption and Male Masochism,” and this is exacerbated by the arrival of a young but matronly schoolmistress Andréa (Ferréol) with her students who want to see the garden. She accepts the men’s invitation to stay on in the house to become another object of competitive desire, and fully embraces all the sexual and gustatory indulgence around her. Marcello goes further by inviting three prostitutes to join them and Ugo prepares a banquet fit for a funeral. The excessive eating makes Michel flatulent and Marcello impotent; when Marcello kicks the toilet in frustration, it explodes in the famous fecal fountain scene that apparently so disgusted his then partner Catherine Deneuve, that she did not speak to him for a week (Ebert). The prostitutes flee the revolting madness, but Andréa stays like an Angel of Death, helping the men meet their end and, in surviving, perhaps symbolically marking an end to the masculinist bourgeoisie they represent.

To return to the role of taste in defining the rise and demise of the protagonists, let me begin with Marcello, as he is the first to die. Despite his bourgeois attitudes, he is a modern man, associated with machines and mobility, such as the planes and the beautiful Bugatti, which he strokes with greater sensuality than the women he hoists onto it. His taste is for the functioning mechanical body, fast and competitive, much like himself when he is gorging on oysters. But his own body betrays him when his “masculine mechanics” stop functioning, and it is the fact that the Bugatti has broken down that actually causes his death—he is found frozen in driver’s seat after trying to escape in the Bugatti during the night. Marcello’s taste for the mechanical leads therefore to his eventual demise.

Michel is the next victim of his own taste, which privileges aesthetic beauty, elegance, the arts, and fashion, and euphemises the less attractive or impolite, the scatological, boorish side of life. His feminized attire—pink polo-neck and flowing caftan—cannot distract from what is happening in his body. The bourgeois manners that bind him to beauty mean that breaking wind traumatises him. His elegant gestures at the dance barre encourage rather than disguise his flatulence; his loud piano playing cannot cover the sound of his loud farts, much to the mirth of Philippe and Andréa. In a final effort to conceal his painful bowel obstruction, he slips outside to die in obscene and noisy agony, balanced in an improbably balletic pose on the balcony balustrade. His desire for elegance and euphemism heralds his death.

Neither Marcello nor Michel go willingly to their ends. Their tastes are thwarted, and their deaths are disgusting to them. Their cadavers are placed in the freezer room as silent witnesses to the orgy that accelerates towards its fatal goal.

Ugo’s taste is more earthy and inherently linked to the aims of the adventure. He is the one who states explicitly: “If you don’t eat, you won’t die.” He wants to cook for others and be appreciated for his talents, as well as eat and have sex, preferably at the same time. It is a combination of these desires that kills him as he force-feeds himself the monumental creation of pâté in the shape of the Cathedral of Saint-Peter that has been rejected as too dry by Philippe, and too rich by Andréa. The pride that makes him attempt to finish eating his masterpiece while Andréa masturbates him on the dining table leads to a heart-stopping finale for Ugo.

As for Philippe, his taste is transgressive. In spite of his upstanding career as a judge, he lies and flouts convention in his unorthodox relationship with nanny Nicole. Andréa represents another maternal figure to whom he is attracted and, while he wishes to marry her, thereby conforming to bourgeois norms, he also has sex with her, and her promiscuous nature is clearly signalled. Given his status as a judge, he reasons that he can not bring Marcello’s frozen body inside because concealing a cadaver is a crime, yet he promotes collective suicide on his premises. Philippe’s final transgression of the rules combines diabetic disobedience with Oedipal complex—Andréa serves him a sugary pink jelly dessert in the form of a woman’s breasts, complete with cherries, which he consumes knowingly and mournfully, causing his death.

Unlike Marcello and Michel, Ugo and Philippe choose their demise by indulging their tastes for ingestion and transgression. Following Ferreri’s motivations and this analysis of the four male protagonists, taste is clearly a cornerstone of La Grande bouffe’s conception and narrative structure. It is equally evident that these tastes are contrary to bourgeois norms, provoking distaste and even revulsion in spectators. The film’s reception at the time of its release and ever since have confirmed this tendency in both critical reviews and popular feedback as André Habib’s article on Salo and La Grande bouffe (2001) meticulously demonstrates. With such a violent reaction, one might wonder why La Grande bouffe is found on so many cinema studies curricula and is considered to be a must-see film (The Guardian).

Corpus and Corporeality in Food Film Studies

I chose La Grande bouffe as the first film in the “Matters of Taste” subject, alongside Luis Bunuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast, and Laurent Bénégui’s Au Petit Marguery, as all are considered classic films depicting French eating cultures. Certainly any French cinema student would know La Grande bouffe and most cinephiles around the world have seen it. It is essential background knowledge for students studying French eating cultures and features as a key reference in much scholarly research and popular culture on the subject. After explaining the canonical status of La Grande bouffe and thus validating its inclusion in the course, I warned students about the explicit nature of the film. We studied it for one week out of the 12 weeks of semester, focusing on questions of taste in the film and the socio-cultural representations of food. Although the almost ubiquitous response was: “C’est dégueulasse!,” there was no serious resistance until the final exam when a few students declared that they would boycott any questions on La Grande bouffe. I had not actually included any such questions in the exam. The student evaluations at the end of semester indicated that several students questioned the inclusion of this “disgusting pornography” in the corpus.

There is undoubtedly less nudity, violence, gore, or sex in this film than in the Game of Thrones TV series. What, then, repulses these Gen Y students? Is it as Pasolini suggests, the neorealistic dialogue and décor that disturbs, given the ontologically challenging subject of suicide? (Viano). Or is it the fact that there is no reason given for the desire to end their lives, which privileges the physiological over the psychological? Is the scatological more confronting than the pornographic? Interestingly, “food porn” is now a widely accepted term to describe a glamourized and sometimes sexualized presentation of food, with Nigella Lawson as its star, and hundreds of blog sites reinforcing its popularity. Yet as Andrew Chan points out in his article “La Grande bouffe: Cooking Shows as Pornography,” this film is where it all began: “the genealogy reaches further back, as brilliantly visualized in Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film La Grande bouffe, in which four men eat, screw and fart themselves to death” (47). Is it the overt corporeality depicted in the film that shocks cerebral students into revulsion and rebellion?


In the guise of a conclusion, I suggest that my Gen Y students’ taste may reveal a Bourdieusian distaste for the taste of others, in a third degree reaction to the 1970s distaste for bourgeois taste. First degree: Ferreri and his entourage reject the psychological for the physiological in order to condemn bourgeois values, provoking scandal in the 1970s, but providing compelling cinema on a socio-political scale. Second degree: in spite of the outcry, high audience numbers demonstrate their taste for scandal, and La Grande bouffe becomes a must-see canonical film, encouraging my choice to include it in the “Matters of Taste” corpus. Third degree: my Gen Y students’ taste expresses a distaste for the academic norms that I have embraced in showing them the film, a distaste that may be more aesthetic than political.

Oui, c’est dégueulasse, mais …


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Taste; La Grande bouffe; French cinema

Copyright (c) 2014 Jacqueline Louise Dutton

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