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For Takashi Miike, it’s Audition; for Park Chan Wook, it’s Oldboy; and for Quentin Tarantino, it’s Pulp Fiction. While not necessarily the best work from these men of vision, they are the films that solidified these director’s places in celluloid history and exposed them to the masses. All the aforementioned films are prime showcases of the myriad of techniques these individuals express as film makers; it solidifies their styles. For Pier Paolo Pasolini, that film is his 1975 take on Marquis De Sade’s writings – Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom. Notoriously controversial (banned in Australia for 17 years!) and usually in the top three of everybody’s “most extreme cinema” lists, the history of Salo is as close to you can get to a real life Le Fin Absolute du Monde. (1)
Before jumping into the movie – and to justify all the reading I did for this 😛 – let’s talk about the genesis of this notorious debauchery… (For JUST the movie review and not a history lesson, feel free to skim to the SALO section)
Marquis De Sade
Donatien Alphonse Francois, AKA the Marquis De Sade was quite the rock-star of the mid-1700s. As a (young) wealthy individual, De Sade lived the life of an aristocrat – basically doing whatever he wanted, whilst expressing his viewpoints on true freedom – freedom from “morality, religion, or law” (2) – as such akin to a full-blooded nihilist (“Louie doesn’t care about anything, he’s a nihilist – oh that must be exhausting.”) (3) Never was his attitude towards life more evident than in his writings; hailed as straight up pornography by most, and make no mistake, it IS pornographic in descriptions and occurrences, but it also contains incredible literary technique – sophisticated pornography, if you will.
We all know that living like a rock-star ultimately has its consequences – physically, mentally, or both – and De Sade was no exception to this (karmatic?) rule. Perhaps expressed best by Simone de Beauvoir, “the intoxication of tyranny leads directly to cruelty, for the libertine, in hurting the object that serves him,” (4) – Sade got busted for harming prostitutes at a local brothel, as well as imprisoning them at his domicile, and sexually and physically abusing them. Spending time in multiple prisons and 32 years (!) in an asylum, this libertine’s self-proclaimed freedom was quickly extinguished. It was within the confines of these establishments that De Sade’s writing really got its wings – his anger manifested itself “declaring an all-out war on the society that judged and imprisoned him.” (5) It is at the crux of this ‘war’ that De Sade penned his showcase of (literary) styles – The 120 Days of Sodom…
The 120 days of Sodom
Written in an astonishing thirty-seven days whilst incarcerated, this saga of self-indulgence was written entirely (!) on a twelve-meter long roll of paper in near-microscopic print. Surviving an attack on the prison during the French Revolution – due to it being well concealed in De Sade’s cell – the scroll remained unread and unpublished for another 119 years. Published for the first time in 1904, De Sade was reincarnated through heated debates and discussions of his work as “120 Days of Sodom moved Sade further, much further, into the realm of philosophic absolutism from which there could be no retreat.” (5)
The premise of 120 Days of Sodom is simple – four wealthy libertines (perhaps a projection of De Sade?) ‘rent’ out a castle, kidnap sixteen children (eight male, eight female)- as well as their own daughters – and basically have a free-for-all, where nothing is off-limits: sodomy (big surprise), pedophilia, rape, torture – both physical and psychological, MANY instances of coprophagia, and, ultimately, the murder of almost everybody. Perhaps Simone de Beauvoir said it best in his essay Must We Burn Sade? – “The fact is that it is neither as author nor as sexual pervert that Sade compels our attention; it is by virtue of the relationship which he created between these two aspects of himself.” Despite all the aforementioned atrocities, the first half of the book reads rather fluid – an educated man wrote this, not just some hack trying to shock people, as is evident by the wide range of philosophies – many ancient philosophers are quoted throughout, sociological abstracts – such as conformity and the roles of those in power vs. those with none – and even political discourse – social commentary on everything from the government to the Church.
The film opens with a white background, and the credits, set to an orchestral rendering of “These Foolish Things” – irony indeed! We are introduced to the libertines (a duke, a bishop, a magistrate, and a president) as they sign a document, proclaiming “all’s good if it’s excessive” with a smile – evil resides in these men. We then follow some children on their bicycles, laughing, no care in the world…that is…until they see the fascist troops on the other side of the road – it is at this point that the mood of the movie changes, until the end; that is ALL the happiness you get out of this movie. At the château, the libertines gather the children and proclaim the rules – basically stripping them of ALL their rights; and if they refuse, death. As the debauchery increases (exponentially) the sodomites find that they take pristine joy in knowing they can repeat the act of sodomy multiple times, but are confronted with a paradox when it comes to murder – as one can only be murdered once. They solve this by playing mind games with the victims – staging a murder but it turns out the gun was empty; the tension akin to that scene in Schindler’s List where the man was going to be executed but the gun kept malfunctioning, or in House of 1000 Corpses during the painfully long execution scene. As the libertine go further down their rabbit hole of abuse of power, they grow weary and decide to execute the children – taking turns of course, so as each can experience the “pleasure” of extinguishing life.
In watching the second disc of the Criterion re-release, I saw a VERY different side of the movie – all the behind the scenes footage portrayed a set where nobody is really taking things (the subject matter) seriously. It was revealed during an interview with cast member Helen Surgere that “paradoxically, the mood [on set] was jovial and immature…We had no idea we were making something so dark until it was edited.” (7) She told of jokes and pranks played by most of the actors, a weird doppelganger side of Salo. However, in retrospect, this reviewer remembers asking Fred Vogel about how it was on set for his August Underground trilogy and he said in between takes they were all joking and laughing, so maybe one has to make sure they don’t get too sucked into the subject matter, a natural (survival?) technique perhaps.
Pasolini is no stranger to social commentary, most of his films depict the negative side of consumerism – how it destroys rather than creates. He has been quoted as saying that Salo is an attack on “consumerist values that fulfill what Marx calls a ‘genocide of vital and real earlier cultures.’” (8) Now, this reviewer could not see the attack on consumerism within Salo until it was explained during one of the features in an interview that “…the dictatorship of consumerism is the new fascism.” (7) …the pieces are coming together, metaphors on top of metaphors! One can also see a strong form of Marxism in Salo with aspects of proletariat vs. bourgeois AKA those with power vs. those without. Pasolini was even quoted as saying that “the sex [in Salo] is a metaphor for the relationship between power and its subjects.” (9)
Lastly, I would like to discuss the libertines themselves. If I may be blunt, the actor playing the president, Aldo Valletti, is the most TERRIFYING and CREEPY looking man that HAS, or will EVER be born – and those are NOT hyperboles!
That aside, what really hit me when I was watching Salo was the fact that these monsters – these fiends – these ogres – were quoting Proust, Baudelaire, and Nietzsche throughout their actions – an odd juxtaposition between animalistic behaviors and civilized, rational thought. Movie reviewer Gary Indiana said of it in is essay entitled The Written Movie –
This creates within the surreal world of the film a strange oasis of extra textual, or extra filmic, discourse, for the lines seem not to relate at all to what we have witnessed but to an order of things that has been rigorously excluded from the movie itself – an oasis of reflectiveness free from the wartime conditions raging beyond the chateau’s walls, and in the social conditions of bourgeois order.
Beyond the quotations, the libertines were also extremely polite to their peers, and then cold-blooded animals to the victims, yet another odd juxtaposition of civilized vs. animalistic.
It should also be noted that Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered shortly after making this film, while originally the culprit was a young boy (17 years old!), he has since stated that his confession was coerced out of him due to threats to his family, and other evidence, suggesting the work of an extortionist, have come to light. Pasolini’s death is still a mystery; yet, one can’t help but think Salo was partly responsible for it…
So there you have it, you learned something. Feels good right? This reviewer remembers seeing this film years back and dismissing it for the garbage that most people do. However, remember to always look deeper my friends, all film is art, it’s just sometimes there is too much filth on it to appreciate it fully.
“And now friend-reader, you must prepare your heart and mind for the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began, a book the likes of which are met with neither amongst the ancients nor amongst us moderns…” – Marquis De Sade, Intro to 120 Days of Sodom
(1) Masters of Horror S01E08 “Cigarette Burns” – A tale of a film that caused the viewing audience to massacre each other – a metaphor for how film can be a weapon.
(2) Taken from Wikipedia article on the Marquis De Sade.
(3) Quote from The Big Lebowski.
(4) Must We Burn Sade? – An excellent essay on Marquis De Sade written by Simone de Beauvoir.
(5) Marquis De Sade – The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings, page 183.
(6) Gideon Bachman’s on-set diary entitled Pasolini and the Marquis De Sade – included with Criterion re-rerelease.
(7) Helen Surgere as interviewed on The End of “Salo” documentary, included with the Criterion re-release
(8) Pier Paolo Pasolini as interviewed on Salo: Yesterday and Today, included with the Criterion re-release
(9) Pier Paolo Pasolini as interviewed on The End of “Salo” documentary, included with the Criterion re-release