The mythology that surrounds Saló is more interesting than Saló.
(WARNING: This post contains a discussion on matures themes in a mature film, and if you are underage or possess a weak constitution, I would advise that you venture no further than this warning. And that full stop.)
What I mean by this, is that the ideological conflict which was spawned due to this films release, the censorship, the bans, the death of Pasolini himself, the entire genre of depraved cinema it gave birth to, and the battles of its meaning which have raged (quietly, by intellectuals with too much time on their hands) has been near ceaseless, with the film still inspiring those with that deep instinctual reaction, one of admiration or one of disgust. That history attached to Saló, will always be more interesting than Saló itself. So in provoking discussions on the human condition in it’s all hideousness, the film has succeeded.
I’m struggling to think of anything else it does well.
People are desperate to plant their flag after seeing Saló. It’s exactly the sort of film that provokes either extreme love or extreme hatred. You can roughly sum it up as; Admired by Nihilists, Reviled by Moralists. There’s not really much room for my reaction, which was one of mostly indifference.
And I’m upset by my indifference towards it. I wanted to be incensed by it, I wanted to be filled with the extreme adoration or extreme anguish that the film supposedly provokes. It’s a musing on power. It’s an exploration of sexual depravity. It’s a hate filled, misanthropic bastard film. It’s disgusting. It’s beautiful.
It’s not really anything. If anything, the best term I can come up with it is this. “It’s a limp sketch”. Limp because its pretty boring. A sketch because its pretty half-baked. If that’s me throwing down the gauntlet, it’s not much of one. I don’t want to hate this film, generally most cinephiles spend their time railing against mass manufactured, uninspired films made on formulas. The generic if you will. We always try to champion the individual artistic statement (hell it was cinephiles who had the arrogance/self belief to invent the auteur theory, a theoretical prism of viewing film which attributes sole intent to the director) over the mass-produced schlock.
Pasolini made his statement. And I commend him for that. But his statement is caught in an odd place. For its one of the most controversial films ever made, and yet in comparison to the story it is based on, written by the infamous Marquis De Sade, well it looks positively PG. And I think here lies an incredible crux. Because the depravity of the story has been effectively dismantled, the revulsion inspired by the film is incomparable to the revulsion that can be inspired by the text, because the text is really untransferrable, because its fantasy.
Now of course, millions of fantasies have been transferred from book to screen. But the kind of fantasies involved in this are not the fantasies we ever expose ourselves to. These are fantasies of the most profane, the kind of fantasies we dare not speak them out loud for they represent such abject horror that to utter them is almost a sin. De Sade does not just call for sexual liberation, he calls for absolute sexual freedom, the ability to get your rocks off to anything, no matter how monstrous. And I’m not just talking BDSM (the S is for Sadism, named after guess who) or some peculiar fetishes here. The book uses pedophilic pleasure as a base for every other story told by the madames to enjoy. In the final months of the book, equivalent to Pasolini’s “Circle of Blood”, the madames tell stories about men getting their rocks off to disembowelment of pregnant women, skinning of children alive, and an infinite number of unimaginable horrors. The best the film does in this regard is the torturing of the captives.
Pasolini would have been a genuine madman to ever attempt to properly capture the absolute mental insanity, the unhinged words of Marquis De Sade. No one could ever do justice (ha) to it, besides De Sade himself, and the only way he could do justice to his vision was to enact his fantasies into the real world. The libertine’s destruction. So Pasolini fundamentally changes the internal structure of the tale, turning it from an indulgent fantasy to an indulgent allegory. I can’t find the direct source, but it is said that Pasolini meant the corprophilic scenes as a comment on the fast food industry, the willingness and often desire for people to literally, eat shit.
But who cares at the end of the day, because this film exists almost as a blank slate to inscribe your meaning onto. It’s oppressively neutral. It’s a vacuum, because it ignores for the most part, the second half of human existence. The first is action. The second is consequences. There are no consequences to any of the actions. There’s just a general descent into highly detailed degeneracy. The insular world becomes a mirror to its own hollowness. Even crumbs of construction, the girls that develop a lesbian relationship, the socialist salute of the ‘transgressive’ guard who sleeps with a black servant girl, don’t really offer anything besides fleeting fragments of meaning in an ocean of grey void.
Look maybe the reason why nihilism never took off is because it’s really fucking boring, and it doesn’t contribute anything interesting. It’s the ultimate critic, because all it does is deconstruct everything, and contribute nothing. Sade finds his construction in his pursuit of pleasure. Pasolini doesn’t even find it in that.
It takes no stance. It’s characters discuss the relationships of power without ever coming to any conclusions. They drop famous libertine writers in, Nietzsche being the name most people would pick up on, without actually discussing what the ideas mean, or what they can mean. Nobody contains any depth, any motivation. Because their motivation for desire is completely separate from the films stylistic concerns.
Everybody says exactly what they think, which ends up as an effect described in this video essay underneath as “Talking Wallpaper”:
We are not invited to be part of these events, the window does not open and we cannot climb through. We simply watch them from the vast chasm of the room, their passivity not allowing us any conduit to witness the events from a viewpoint. This is not entrancing, hypnotic cinema. It is not making you complicit in its crimes, it’s simply making you an uninvolved witness. Which is without a doubt, the worst message Pasolini could ever have conveyed.
Pasolini was a well know left-wing filmmaker and political activist in Italy, and his films have been the endless study of marxist film critics and those with Communist leanings. His films are just begging for that indulgent transcribing of political subtext onto film, something I am not a great fan of. And the literature on this film fills books (the BFI edition I purchased comes with a booklet of essays). But at the end of the day, if you really believe this film’s worth, then the best compliment you can give it is your silence. Because it’s not a film which wants to be talked about. It’s a film which does its best to confront you with examples of human cruelty, and its ability to adapt, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions. It’s the abandonment of everything beyond primordial desires, far beyond the realm of judgement. Anybody who tries to inscribe it as a condemnation of fascism is missing the point, because all it is conveying a well-known platitude; that people with power have the ability to abuse it.
So enough with this film. Saló is controversial, but controversy doesn’t mean its good, and it doesn’t mean its interesting. Enough using this film as a litmus test for how out there a film is, because it’s not very out there.
In fact, it’s not very much at all.
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