One of the unwritten wish-fulfillment articles I’ve had in mind for Culture Warrior that nobody will ever read is an overview of cinematic adaptations of the work of the Marquis de Sade, including anything ranging from an early cinematic adaptation of his work in the landmark surrealist film L’Âge d’Or to his comparatively more mainstream embodiment by none other than Geoffrey Rush in Quills to obscure examples from all over the globe like Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmejer’s part-live-action/part stop-motion animation film Lunacy. At the center of this hypothetical list, of course, would be arguably the most famous and easily one of the most divisive adaptations of de Sade’s work, and one of Cole Abaius’s all-time favorite films, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).
To talk about Salò is inevitably to talk about the experience of watching it. So few films in cinema history have not only evoked this extreme and impassioned a response from its detractors, defenders, and apologists, but such experiences and arguments seem to always become inevitably personalized by the endurance test of actually sitting down and watching the film. No matter your feelings on Salò, for anybody that goes into it knowing anything about it beforehand, watching Salò is almost always conflated with Salò itself: there is, at first, the hype and mystery of the film, followed by the reluctant decision to go about the means of finally sitting down to watch it, then the actual physical preparation of watching it (typically involving cautionary mindfulness of what one has eaten before), followed by the actual 112-minute viewing experience (either completed in one brave single sitting or metered out into several), and inevitably concluded with one coming to terms with thoughts over what they’ve seen.
I sit down before you, dear readers, to write about a film I’ve only seen once, and a film whose solitary viewing took place almost two years ago, yet I feel confident enough to write an article about it because of the unique specificity of the experience as well as the indulgence, immersion, and preparation necessary to even watch the film I am writing about today. I’m not here to hype up its grotesqueries or engage in fruitless hyperbole regarding whether or not Salò is indeed “the most disturbing film of all time” (a designation rather meaningless without context or an interpretation of what ‘disturbing’ means, as I could name a great many films who disturbed me far more for less immediately visceral reasons). This article isn’t an introduction to Salò for the uninitiated, rather it is an account existing here simply to be shared with those who, while their opinions of the film may vary greatly, have their own personalized experience of this film.
When I Saw Salò
A discussion of this film within this column is particularly appropriate as its relationship with the Criterion Collection became an important part of the mythic status of this film in discourses amongst young contemporary cinephiles. It was an early entry in the label’s move to DVD (spine #17), but was quickly taken out of circulation because of rights issues with the Pasolini estate. So for years, Salò’s status grew not only because of the controversies of its content, but its inaccessibility as well. Until Criterion re-released Salò in a pristine new transfer with a bevy of special features in 2008, copies of Criterion’s out-of-print older (and, technically speaking, far inferior) version of the DVD sold online for reportedly up to $1,000. So the new DVD was released amongst an escalating cult of interest between millennial cinephiles.
I’m telling you this because I saw Salò for the first time during the late part of the years-long lag between these respective releases, as I picked up an $11 Region 1 DVD from an undefined distribution company whose legal ownership of the material is definitely up to question. As I took the DVD home from a New York City-based independent video store that will go unnamed here, it sat on my desk for a good eight months before I mustered the will and mandated the occasion to finally sit down and watch it.
The interesting thing about watching Salò in a format that was without question bootlegged (it was clearly a carbon copy transfer from another DVD) is that the gritty, inferior quality of the transfer was, in all seriousness, oddly appropriate to the tone of a film whose subject matter, for lack of a better means of expression, indulged wholeheartedly into all things lacking in the pristine.
When I later rented the supplementary materials disc after the film’s Criterion re-release, clips of Salò incorporated into the documentaries possessed that singularly perfect Criterion sheen characteristic of the company’s routine transfers, yet such a beautiful transfer – while undoubtedly impressive and by all means consistent with the company’s professionalism – seemed oddly inappropriate considering both the source material and the film’s content. It felt, oddly enough, like my bootlegged copy was more consistent with the film’s politically reactionary tone and forbidden subject matter; in other words, it made Salò feel like an act of guerilla filmmaking, with its faded quality and tainted edges giving it the impression of being a film birthed from the fringes of society, wearing its imperfection with pride. Like the celebrated “imperfect cinema” of The Battle of Algiers or Memories of Underdevelopment, the film seemed like an act of revolution or counter-revolution in of itself, a violent statement of a political and artistic revolt forced upon a society that didn’t want to see what was being thrown back at them. It’s film as action, not film representing action
…Well, the bootleg felt that way, at least.
Salò’s Unique Problem
My problem coming away from the experience of watching Salò had little to do with whether or not the political and didactic ends of the film were justified by the means of exhibiting sexual abuse, rape, torture, coprophagia, scalping, and eventually murder, but rather in its source material. As stated before, filmic depictions and adaptations of de Sade vary greatly, but the particular appropriation for Salò might be one of the more problematic cases. The essential subversive and transcendent importance of Marquis de Sade, of course, lied in his rampant hedonism that ignored any barrier in its path, including empathy or the regard for the sanctity of innocent human life: nothing was sacred. Through his literature de Sade illuminated how conscience is not intrinsic to human nature, but something imposed upon us by social structures and sexually repressive institutions like class status, the merits of high culture, and, especially, religion.
What Pasolini does with Salò is that he specifically politicizes de Sade in a way most convenient to the ends of a film that, in many aspects, actually contains very little in common with the perspective of de Sade. In a sense, Pasolini bastardizes de Sade. Pasolini, a devout Communist, possessed specific and aggressive political intents in denouncing fascism through Salò (in fact, Salò came out at a unique time in 1970s Italian arthouse cinema in which auteurs revisited their country’s history of fascism not with a return to neo-realism, but with creative and often confrontational interpretations of the era, like Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and 1900 (1976), Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties (1975), and Fellini’s Amarcord (1973)).
But by politicizing de Sade, Pasolini also moralizes the original hedonist intent of the 120 Days of Sodom, as Salò is a film that doubtlessly engages with the fact that we should be ethically denouncing everything the fascists do in the film, which is why the film itself functions as an exercise in torture and endurance. Unlike Pasolini’s film, perspectives of morality (or politics, for that matter) don’t exist in de Sade, and the very significance of the author’s work lies in this fact. Salò, then, rather than adapting de Sade for its own subversive and insightful benefit, actually appropriates the 120 Days of Sodom in the most offensive sense of the term, using it solely for the benefit of the adapting author (Pasolini), not with respect for the intent of the text (de Sade). The fascists in the film occupy the role that de Sade’s vantage point originally played in the novel, so by injecting an element of political activism into this work, Pasolini effectively makes de Sade the real enemy.
I’m still not sure where I situate myself in the debate on whether or not Salò is good or bad art. I’m certain that one day I’ll watch it again, coming away with new means to respond to the film. But of all things I anticipated Salò to be, I never thought I’d come out of it defending the name of the Marquis de Sade.