In 1973, La Grande Bouffe caused a scandal at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet Marco Ferreri’s film is steeped in references to French gastronomic discourse. Four friends arrange a weekend away, planning to eat themselves to death; four men, just like in the 1924 novel, The Passionate Epicure: La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet. Philippe, who instigated the trip, is a magistrate and studied law, not unlike gastrosopher Brillat-Savarin. As for women, they are absent at the start of the adventure. When plump Andréa enters, Philippe is worried she will ruin their eating pleasure, but she is nonetheless invited to join the group. She is involved in making a tart, her bottom being used to flatten out the pastry: sexual appetite, sweet seductions, culinary incompetence … this portrayal of women reflects the old Christian association of gula – luxuria (gluttony – lust) and contemporary gastronomic misogyny. But the scandal lies elsewhere. It resides in the indecency of an unflinching depiction of the whole alimentary act, from ingestion to defecation, until bursting point – as the film’s poster, designed by Reiser, clearly announces. The malaise that grips the spectator stems from the clash of two Western definitions of la gourmandise that are in opposition to each other despite being embodied by the same characters, who furthermore come from privileged backgrounds: on the one hand, the obscenity of the greedy pig and excesses of the glutton; on the other hand, the art of good eating and the education of the epicure.
This Western duality of food pleasure goes back to the early Christian era. Around 365 AD, Evagrius Ponticus developed a list of the evil thoughts that the devil used to tempt the monks who had withdrawn to the desert. The first of these was gluttony, immediately followed by lust, and thus the gula - luxuria pairing was born; the organ of taste was considered to be the gullet, and its shameful descent to the lower body. Passed on to the communities of the Christian West, this list was revised by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, and from the 13th century all Christians were taught to abhor the seven deadly sins. But in monastic life as in the lives of all believers, the ideal of moderation had supplanted that of deprivation.
For Gregory the Great, the sin of gluttony was defined as eating between meals or eagerly anticipating them, eating and drinking more than necessary, eating voraciously and consuming overly refined dishes. Thus one of the most enduring elements against gluttony had already been articulated: the stigmatisation of snacking between meals. As for the reference to voracious eating, it heralded the offensive against gula by introducing good table manners.
The Church may have wanted to curb debauchery and excesses with food and especially drink, but for all that it did not reject the pleasures of good eating. As taught by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, neither the desire to drink and eat, nor the pleasures of eating are wrong; they are natural, that is to say intended by God, unlike an uncontrolled desire for food, which reduces humans to bestiality. A reasonable desire for food is first and foremost a question of moderation, balance and accepted social behaviour in response to the body’s physiological needs, the eater’s well-being and interpersonal relations.