Salò Revisited

9 April 2014

Nearly forty years since its release, Pasolini’s film Salò, based on Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom, hasn’t lost its power to shock.

Revisiting films you’ve watched before can often be a happy experience. It’s something I’ve been doing a lot of recently (most notably Derek Jarman’s film Blue) and it’s been an interesting experience to explore how my life and perceptions have changed between screenings. There are other cultural experiences that you’d quite happily never return to again, for fear of re-visiting an horrific or boring experience, or the even potential disappointment that the book or film might not be as amazing or powerful as you first remembered it.

For me, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salò or 120 Days of Sodom falls somewhere between those two extremes. It’s a beautifully made and highly disturbing film, and once seen, difficult to forget, and even more difficult to imagining wanting to rewatch. Or so I thought, until I rewatched it this weekend.

I’m writing a comic short story about a gay couple who go on a movie date intending to see Amélie but end up seeing Salò instead. It had been nearly 10 years since I’d seen Salò (on DVD), and nearly 20 since I first saw it at the New Zealand Film Festival, where the festival organisers had won a battle with the censor’s office to be able to screen it uncut for the first time. Like my friend Patrick who claims to only be able to sit through Wagner’s opera Parsifal once every seven years, Salò isn’t something I think I could watch regularly. That being said, this rescreening felt rewarding and stimulating in a way the previous times hadn’t been – benefiting, I suppose, from a more grown-up perspective. Familiarity with the film also helps, as I could spend slightly less time flinching at the shock of watching people being forced to eat faeces, and more time focusing on Pasolini’s extraordinary film-making craft.

Salò is a strange fusion of two very different creative minds. Pasolini’s source was the Marquis de Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom, with some pointed references to Dante’s Inferno thrown in. 120 Days was written over a feverish month in 1785 during one of the Marquis’ long prison stretches in the Bastille. It describes four powerful male libertines – a Duke, a Bishop, a President and a Magistrate – who seclude themselves in a castle and hold a three month-long orgy, in which they rape and torture beautiful young men and women who’ve been abducted specially for the occasion. The men engage four middle-aged female prostitutes to tell stories about their most extreme sexual experiences, to provide erotic inspiration. Prompted and encouraged by the storytellers, the men carry out escalating levels of violence against their victims, ending in a violent slaughter.

Like much of Sade’s work, 120 Days is written as a kind of fever dream, describing sexual acts that are so extreme as to be physically impossible, and conflating sex and violence to a level that’s both horrific and laughably funny. There’s a sense of one-upmanship in Sade that sometimes feels playful and juvenile, like teenagers trying to out-gross each other with filthy stories, though it’s ultimately too violent a world for all but the most iron-stomached to remain in for long. I’ll leave it to greater minds than mine to expand on Sade’s literary significance. Suffice it to say that Sade was, in his own crazy way, trying to create a new politics and aesthetics that reversed the Enlightenment ideal of man as essentially good. In Sade’s moral universe, humanity is corrupt and depraved; sin is celebrated and rewarded, virtue is punished and destroyed, and the strong and powerful inevitably triumph over the weak. While he’s seldom fun to read, his work stands as a powerful example of an extreme state of sexual imagination, and the negation of Western society’s moral codes.

Pasolini’s take on Sade was equally as fascinating. After a distinguished career as a poet and writer, he turned to filmmaking in his 40s. Until Salò, Pasolini’s work seemed to embrace Rousseau’s ideals of humanity as essentially good. In his film trilogy The Decameron, The Gospel According to St Matthew and The Canterbury Tales, he celebrated the “innocence” of ordinary man, unsullied by modern affectations, and presented human sexuality as something natural, beautiful and entertaining. By the early 1970s, he’d disavowed most of his earlier work, arguing that humanity was being poisoned by capitalism, and that his earlier vision no longer applied. More pointedly, he decried the corruption of modern Italian society, which he claimed was still controlled by Fascist forces, and encouraged a radical economic and artistic rebellion.

He demonstrated his point to electrifying effect in Salò. Sade’s narrative is transposed to the Italian town of Salò in the early 1940s, where Mussolini set up a Fascist puppet state at the the end of WWII. Salò counts as one of Italy’s dirtiest little secrets from the war years: in the months before liberation by the Allies, Salò was the scene of horrific atrocities by the Fascist rulers towards local townspeople, on a par with the tortures of the concentration camps. Sade’s gleeful tale of corrupt authoritarianism became perfect source material for Pasolini to represent a world that, as he saw it, was rotten from the top down.

What’s fascinating about Salò is how perfectly Pasolini recreates Sade’s vision, but simultaneously works to reject Sade’s gleefully evil philosophy. Pasolini is careful to focus as much on the young victims as on their sadistic captors. Naked for most of the film, the young people express every note in the register of human suffering – from terror to disbelief to disgust and finally to numbed resignation. Pasolini’s many close-ups of the victims’ anguished faces are among the film’s most harrowing moments. Like most viewers, I doubt I’ll ever forget the shot of a young woman, standing naked before the Duke and weeping uncontrollably as he commands her to eat his freshly-expelled faeces. It’s difficult, given Pasolini’s focus on pain and suffering, to respond to the Sadean orgy as pornography or even as Grand Guignol fantasy. (It’s worth noting here that some of the film’s detractors rebuked Pasolini for selling out Sade’s vision, though it’s hard to imagine how a more “celebratory” version of 120 Days could have been made).

While Pasolini expunges most of the subversive pleasure from Sade’s narrative, he’s right on track at presenting Fascism as a closed system from which there is no escape. While we’re encouraged to meditate on the suffering of the victims, Pasolini’s framing and frequent use of stationary wide shots distances us from any sense of active engagement in the story. All forms of resistance among the victims are found out and brutally repressed. A young man found making love with a servant girl is executed by firing squad. Rather than uniting to fight their oppressors, the young people rush to inform on each other in the hope of saving themselves. Later, a young woman sitting in a barrel of faeces with others marked for execution, screams out “Oh Lord, why has thou forsaken us?”, echoing Jesus’ cry of despair in the Garden of Gethsemane. No answer is given and no relief is offered. The film exists in a claustrophobic aesthetic and moral space from which there is no way out.

The film’s infamous final sequence, in which the remaining victims are brutally tortured to death, is viewed literally through the binocular lenses of the four Signores, who take turns to watch from a window overlooking the gallows site. We’re reminded that someone else’s body has become a product, and human suffering has become an entertainment.  Pasolini leaves us considering own viewing of the atrocities as being equally as passive and complicit.

Pasolini’s masterstroke, as a filmmaker and as a social activist, is to present the film as a paean to Fascist aesthetics. Salò is, troublingly, one of the most beautiful looking films ever made. Each shot is precisely framed, the set drips with chic Art Deco elegance, and the costumes (particularly of the storytellers) are the last word in 1930s Hollywood glamour. With a sadist’s precision and mercilessness, Pasolini seduces us with the alluring surfaces and material displays of Art Deco-era design, then disrupts his perfect picture by placing it alongside graphic scenes of torture. There’s one especially beautiful extended tracking shot of the Bishop waltzing with Signora Maggi around an opulently decorated ballroom, which runs for about five minutes as they make two circuits of the floor. It could be something from a Hollywood melodrama like Jezebel or Gone With the Wind – except that we’re watching a prostitute describing defecating onto a man on his death bed. We’re reminded that Art Deco was, after all, the signature design of the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Fascist party and the horrors that followed. If there’s ever a film that makes you rethink the good sense of bidding on an Art Deco tea set on eBay, this is it.

It’s ironic, really, that a film offering such a fierce critique of the corrupting effects of capitalism should have spent most of its life being branded as corrupt. Since its release in 1975 (the year I was born), Salò has had a long and difficult struggle to be seen. Condemned as unwatchable pornography, it was banned from general distribution in many countries, including Australia and New Zealand. In the UK, prints of the film were withdrawn from cinemas after police intervention, and it was only able to be shown in private cinema “clubs” to get around the censor’s restrictions. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, with the relaxing of censorship laws and the resurgence of interest in film studies, that the film was able to be reclassified and eventually permitted for cinema and release. (The DVD version I watched was released by the BFI in 2008).

Rewatching the film this time around, I was struck by the fierce and uncompromising quality of Pasolini’s vision, but also the ambiguity of his presentation of sexuality. While the film is often horrifying, it also carries a strong erotic charge. Pasolini took great care in selecting the beautiful young men and women who play the victims, most of whom were non-professional actors. The young men who play “The Studs” – four boys recruited by the Signores as soldiers on the basis of their huge penis size – have a rugged beauty and brash (though still somewhat awkward) sexuality that wouldn’t look amiss in gay porn films. Given what we know of Pasolini’s tastes for rough sex with young working class men, there’s a case to be made for Salò being a vision of Pasolini’s sexual fantasies just as much as it’s meant to be a cautionary tale.

There’s an especially strange charge around Pasolini’s presentation of homosexuality. Throughout the film, homosexual desire is held up constantly as a perversion of the natural order, culminating in a scene where three of the Signores dress as women and perform a pagan marriage ceremony with their chosen young men. The Duke describes sodomy as “the death of the species”, but despite this, the Signores go at it constantly with both male and female partners (admittedly with varying degrees of consent from the passive partner). The scenes of male-male sodomy are mostly consenting and sometimes quite beautiful. After the wedding ceremony, the Bishop gets fucked enthusiastically by one of the Studs, who tells him that “his friend will be waiting for him”. You could almost imagine it as a love scene from an indie movie, if you weren’t aware that the Stud is the Bishop’s slave and could be killed at any moment. This sense of non-heterosexual sex as something perverse and yet desirable is consistent with Sade, but again could be as much about Pasolini’s complicated feelings about his own sexuality.

Even more problematically, some of the young men even seem to react pleasurably to being chosen to be the Signores’ bumboys. The Duke, a handsome bearish fellow who looks not dissimilar to some of my ex-boyfriends, shares several passionate kisses with young men who respond enthusiastically. These scenes are crucial, I think, to excavating Pasolini’s take on sado-masochism. While Salò appears to condemn systems of power and dominance, it’s clear that he’s not above acknowledging the pleasure and eroticism of submission, even when it’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome response rather than true consent.

I found myself more aroused than I expected during several scenes, and wondered whether this was deliberate on Pasolini’s part – another crack of the whip from a man who seemed to embody both sadistic and masochistic tendencies in his personal and professional lives. Then again, my erotic engagement may be further evidence that of the kind of moral corruption that Pasolini warned against. It’s difficult to imagine the effect that Salò’s scenes of nudity and sex must have had on a 1970s audience who were mostly unused to seeing pornographic images. In our current pornography-infused age, Salò‘s images don’t look quite as extraordinary as they might once have been. Ours is an age where acceptance of sexual imagery has been normalised – for better or for worse.

Salò is a film which is easy to admire, but difficult to love – due largely in part to Pasolini’s masterly use of filmmaking technique to withhold a pleasurable viewing experience and keep his audience at arm’s length. For all its body horror, the most depressing part of the experience of watching Salò is the bleakness and pessimism of Pasolini’s vision. It’s the work of an artist who has rejected the conventional vocabulary of art, and instead created a new artistic language using shit and blood and tears. It’s an act of resistance from a political player who seems to have lost his faith in the possibilities for social change. And it’s a critique of commodified sexuality from a gay artist who can’t help but find the erotic appeal in the cycle of domination and submission.

While Pasolini seems to have intended Salò to be a provocation and perhaps even a call to action, the position he adopts is so extreme that it’s difficult to imagine where he might have gone next. His murder, just a few months after Salò was made, has sealed the film as his epitaph, though it’s tempting to speculate on what he might have done next had he lived. Sadly, he never got the opportunity. The many rumours that Pasolini’s death was a politically-approved assassination suggests that the film succeeded in landing on at least some of the official targets of his contempt.

My DVD copy of Salò will go back on the shelf now, where I imagine it will stay for many years before I’m ready to watch it again. I’m glad to have revisited Pasolini’s world, despite my not being able to eat anything brown for a few days. The intensity of his vision, his courage in facing the dark side of human nature, and his brilliant use of craft to bring the film to searing raging life is unmatched in the history of cinema. He lays down a powerful gauntlet for audiences to confront, and a searing legacy for other artists to follow.







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