Marco Ferreri: Beyond the Absurd

Marco Ferreri on the set of Bye Bye Monkey (1978)

Eight of his films premiered in competition in Cannes and The House of Smiles (1991) won the Golden Bear in Berlin, but Italian director Marco Ferreri has often been overshadowed by such contemporaries as Antonioni, Fellini, and Pasolini. “As unhesitatingly aggressive in his attacks on left-wing complacency as on right-wing repression, Ferreri pushed and challenged his audience instead of conforming to what was stylistically palatable or ideologically trendy,” wrote Michael Joshua Rowin in the essay accompanying our 2010 release of Ferreri’s Dillinger Is Dead (1969). With Marco Ferreri: Beyond the Absurd, a series running from Friday through June 22, Film at Lincoln Center will give New Yorkers a rare opportunity to reevaluate the oeuvre.

Born in Milan in 1928, Ferreri started out as a producer, working with Luchino Visconti and Dino Risi, but he went to Spain to make his first three features. FLC will screen the third, The Little Coach (1960), in which an elderly man in perfectly good health aims to get himself a motorized wheelchair so that he can scoot around with his disabled friends. “In these early films,” wrote Rowin, “the dark humor, caustic social satire, and surreal logic that would define Ferreri’s subsequent work are already fully developed, a sign of artistic maturity and courage all the more extraordinary for flaunting iconoclastic, antiauthoritarian ideas during the reign of Franco.”

Back in Italy, Ferreri made The Conjugal Bed (1963), starring Marina Vlady, who won the Best Actress award in Cannes, as a woman whose ravenous sexual appetite just might spell the end for her husband. He’s played by Ugo Tognazzi, who stars in The Ape Woman (1964) as an entrepreneur who marries Maria (Annie Girardot), a woman covered head-to-toe with hair, in order to put her on display in a freak show. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds The Ape Woman to be “a bizarre satire whose effect depends on keeping you unsure how bizarre and how satirical it is supposed to be.” Tognazzi also stars in the four comic sketches that make up The Wedding March (1966).

The Man with the Balloons (1968) is the first of six films Ferreri made with Marcello Mastroianni. “I like his world, his view of life,” Mastroianni once said. “I think he’s modern, more than modern, in fact.” Mastroianni plays Mario, a manager at a candy factory whose obsession with balloons threatens his relationship with Giovanna (Catherine Spaak) as well as his own mental well-being. Producer Carlo Ponti chopped the film down to fit into his omnibus feature Oggi, domani, dopodomani (1965), but Ferreri blew it back up again, adding a boldly colored dream sequence.

Michel Piccoli starred in seven Ferreri features (though he appeared only briefly in 1988’s How Good Are the Whites). Their collaboration began with Dillinger Is Dead (1969), featuring Piccoli as a gas-mask designer who comes home and finds his wife (Anita Pallenberg) dosing in bed, and eventually, a gun that may have been used by gangster John Dillinger. “A rigorous and oddly zesty freakout, Dillinger Is Dead remains a startling experience, a proto-Jeanne Dielman founded on beguiling visual forms, inscrutable thematic juxtapositions, and the great Piccoli’s impish pantomime of dawning domestic mutiny,” wrote Fernando F. Croce for Slant in 2010.

In The Seed of Man (1969), Anne Wiazemsky and Marzio Margine play the last couple on earth. Should they have a child and keep the human lineage rolling? He thinks so; she doesn’t. L’udienza (1972), the wandering story of a soldier who has a message for the pope, features Piccoli, Tognazzi, Claudia Cardinale, Vittorio Gassman, and Alain Cuny.

Piccoli and Tognazzi were joined by Mastroianni and a new addition to the Ferreri company, Philippe Noiret, in La grande bouffe (1973), the film for which Ferreri is still probably best known. Stirring up quite a ruckus at Cannes, the four stars play rich, past-their-prime men who gather in a villa with the express purpose of eating themselves to death. Just about every bodily function is visually and audibly amplified.

Writing for Slant in 2015, Chuck Bowen suggested that La grande bouffe “scans most coherently as a reaction to the films of Luis Buñuel (to whom Ferreri was frequently compared, and to his reported frustration), a controversial artist and filmmaker who was, by the 1970s, revered as a critical darling, a fashioner of parables of the bourgeoisie that the bourgeoisie themselves appreciated. By this point, it had grown ‘safe’ to patronize Buñuel’s brand of subversion. Ferreri’s attempting to rip the varnish off the ‘Buñuel film,’ and to make it obscene again, and in this aim he’s an unparalleled success.”

Programming a double retrospective that fascinatingly paired Ferreri’s work with that of Catherine Breillat for the Austrian Film Museum in 2020, Christoph Huber and Jurij Meden argued that Ferreri “was not interested in breaking taboos; he was concerned with depicting present-day life in the capitalist world, which quite naturally landed him in the realm of the grotesque. In fact, hardly any other film has so literally implemented the idea of consumer society and its inevitable self-destruction as La grande bouffe, and therein lies his true provocativeness.”

All four actors reunited—joined this time around by Mastroianni’s partner at the time, Catherine Deneuve—for Don’t Touch the White Woman! (1974), a restaging of the Battle of Little Bighorn—often referred to as Custer’s Last Stand—at a contemporary Parisian construction site. This was Ferreri’s biggest commercial flop.

When The Last Woman (1976) arrived in New York, Times critic Vincent Canby called it an “initially buoyant and erotic comedy that becomes, at the end, a satire of such literal brutality that most people may want to be warned.” In his first Ferreri film, Gérard Depardieu plays Gérard, a young father whose wife (Zouzou) leaves him to raise their baby alone. He hires a helping hand (Ornella Muti), falls for her, and all’s well until the wife demands custody of the child. Keep an eye out for Natalie Baye as the “girl with cherries.”

Tying with Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout for the Grand Prix in Cannes, Bye Bye Monkey (1978) is the first film Ferreri shot in the U.S. In a cast featuring Mastroianni, James Coco, and Geraldine Fitzgerald, Depardieu stars as another Gérard; this one discovers a baby chimpanzee in the palm of a giant model of King Kong and decides to raise it as his own son. For programmer Steve Macfarlane, Bye Bye Monkey is “a quintessentially barbed rumination on the eternal line between man and his forebear.”

FLC calls Seeking Asylum (1979), the winner of a Special Jury Prize in Berlin, “one of Ferreri’s gentlest films.” Roberto Benigni stars as a kindergarten teacher who falls in love with the mother of one of his students. Drawing on stories by one of America’s least gentle writers, Charles Bukowski, Ferreri cast Ben Gazzara as Charles Serking, an alcoholic poet who falls for a prostitute (Ornella Muti) in Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981). “There’s a genuine audacity and risk-taking in this movie,” wrote Pauline Kael. “Its nakedness has an aesthetic force. Not for people disturbed by four-letter words or sexual acts performed with lewd gusto. That should still leave quite a few of us.”

The Future Is Woman (1984) “sits in what is reductively called Ferreri’s feminist period, though it clearly defies such a binary definition,” wrote Celluloid Liberation Front (CLF) for IndieWire in 2012. Anna (Hanna Schygulla) and Gordon (Niels Arestrup) take in a pregnant woman (Ornella Muti) and the two women “develop a close, morbid relationship that will initially alienate Gordon but eventually turns into an asymmetrical platonic triangle.” In How Good Are the Whites (1988), a team of twelve Europeans drives six trucks to Sub-Saharan Africa on a mission to feed the hungry. Camaraderie breaks down, and the film becomes, as FLC puts it, “a ruthless critique of all supposed goodwill deployed by wealthy countries as they exploit and destroy the African habitat.”

Ingrid Thulin and Dado Ruspoli play septuagenarian nursing-home residents who fall in love in The House of Smiles. This is “one of Ferreri’s greatest films, an ode to disinterested love and, along with Tokyo Story (1953) and Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a lucid indictment of how capitalism disposes of those who are no longer useful and productive,” wrote CLF in 2018. The Flesh (1991), starring Sergio Castellitto and Francesca Dellera, is another tale of all-consuming love, albeit one with a far more gruesome ending. In Diary of a Maniac (1993), Jerry Calà plays a salesman convinced that his collected daily entries will be regarded as a masterpiece some day.

Ferreri’s final film, Nitrate Base (1996), is a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of cinema, and as CLF noted, “its working title was Poor People’s House, as in it the history of cinema is seen from the audience’s perspective—what is celebrated is the life unfolding both on and in front of the screen. It’s a love letter written to a lover that was already changing beyond recognition, and yet there is not a glimmer of nostalgia to be found in it.”

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