Sade in Cinema, #1: Three Ways of Looking At Pasolini's 'Salo'

Glenn Kenny
Above: The President (Aldo Valletti, voiced by Marco Bellochio) examines a victim in Salo.
"Nobody reads Sade anymore," I heard someone complain at a cocktail party recently.
No, I'm lying. I've never heard that complaint, at a cocktail party or a film critic panel or an S&M club or anywhere. Which really makes one wonder if anybody even cares that nobody reads Sade anymore, or if there's this whole cult of Sade readers outside of academia that nobody knows about, or what.
Far as I can tell, Sade's actually a bit of a drag to read. Back when I was a kid, and demanded very little of a book beyond its ability to completely freak out my parents, I gave a couple of those Grove Press doorstops—Justine maybe, The 120 Days of Sodom for sure—a shot, and, despite (or maybe even because of) the array of perversions depicted therein, was bored out of my teenage skull. As I recall the typeface and the margins didn't help either. It was more interesting, later, to read others—Barthes particularly—writing about Sade, but I never felt compelled to go back to the old maestro.
As Ado Kyrou and Robert Benayoun would tell you, there is such a thing as sadistic cinema, but is there Sadean cinema? Given that one would have to read a lot of Sade to suss it out, I don't know. That bit at the end of Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, when Sade's 120 Days libertines emerge from their castle and one of them turns out to be Christ himself, is a fittingly blasphemous punchline to Sade's unfinished work...that has, really, little to do with Sade's actual work. Which, dipping into it now—you can actually find an English translation of it online, in the Globusz digital library (—comes off as a largely incoherent celebration of degeneracy with little of the philosophical content that his French postmodernist champions tout.
For what would be his final film, Pier Paolo Pasolini crafted a largely faithful adaptation of portions of Sade's enormous work, which is set in Sade's 18th-century France, and transplanted it to Northern Italy and the fascist Salo republic of Italy 1943-1945. The result is a still-controversial film that is, to put it mildly, very unpleasant to watch. The aristocrats of Sade are replaced by high-bourgeois bureaucrats, but these men are, like Sade's, "pillars of society." Their guard round up a large group of children and teenagers for the delectation—that is, torture, sexual abuse, slaughter—of the four. The evenings' "orgies" are begun with recitations from a group of depraved middle-aged women. Fecal matter is consumed. Some captives betray each other. Horror ramps up to an almost unbearable pitch.
Now to the three ways of looking at the picture. The first is as a howl of rage and despair on the part of its maker. It is a complete 180 from the three Pasolini pictures that precede it, a ramshackle trilogy that celebrates Eros and life, all the films adaptations of works of antiquity: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights. "Eros is sick," Antonioni once famously declared; in Salo, Eros is dead, and resurrected as a monster. Gay sex is portrayed with a revulsion that would likely earn the approval of Fred Phelps—and Pasolini was gay. The horrors of the bureaucrats' mansion are punctuated by weird moments of quiet that almost play as poetic grace notes, as when the villains and their guard wait outside a massive door before beginning one of their ceremonies.
Or the eerie quiet after the captors' pianist, without explanation (we can infer a sudden attack of conscience as much as we can guess at an infernal ennui) throws herself from a window.
What turned Pasolini around to this vision? The changing times, Jean-Pierre Gorin avers in one of the many engaging extras accompanying the recent Criterion Collection DVD edition of the film. Pasolini was distraught over "the end of the '60s;" the post-'68 failure to transform society, and the increasing commodification of everything under the sun, including sexual pleasure. This points to a second way of looking at the picture, as a piece of political/social analysis. By which light I consider Salo to be a colossal failure.
"The orgy room," writes Roberto Chiesi in an essay in the extensive booklet that comes with the Criterion release, "dominated by the presence of the long table ominously placed at its center and thronged with spectators on both sides, is a space for a ritual that alludes to another. The audience there listening is the mass of corrupted and deformed TV viewers, the passive consumers of an indoctrination against which they cannot, or do not want to, rebel." This is the kind of weepy-old-bolshy backwash that makes even a pop culture sceptic such as myself throw up his hands (although I allow that the Italian Chiesi could just be taking the whole Berlusconi thing really hard). Still. As an examination of any facet of fascism in particular, or power relations in general, Salo is a welter of incoherence. That the captors relish their shit-eating while the captives have to be brutally forced is certainly some kind of statement about the nature of bourgeois rot, but the plain fact of the matter is the metaphor simply does not match up to modern life as it is actually lived.
That's the thing about visceral cries of rage and despair: they don't have to actually make sense. Sometimes it's even better if they don't.
A third way of looking at Salo is one I'm not prepared to explore just yet—that is, to place it in the continuum of exploitation cinema the Italian film industry was accelerating at the time Pasolini made the picture. The works of Fulci, Deodato, D'Amato, and Lenzi, with their slashings, gut-churns, simulated cannibalism, and more; these, too, some would argue, were reactions to the political climate of their time. Or perhaps they were symptoms? There's a potentially rich vein to mine here.
My next (admittedly informal) look at Sade in cinema will examine a film with far less, shall we say, pedigree than Pasolini's: The Skull, directed by Freddie Francis and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
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