How can we justify the existence of a film that consists of little more than a constant series of sadistic sexual tortures and humiliations, a film that devotes a lengthy segment to forced coprophagia and that is finally unbearable in its despairing view of the human condition? Notwithstanding the numerous efforts at interpretation that have attempted to make the film, if not more palatable, at least comprehensible as an artistic gesture, Salò is ultimately impervious to understanding unless we are content to view it solely as a personal expression of rage and disgust on a level unachieved in any other screen effort. Whatever the trigger for these emotions (and given Pasolini's insistence on setting his film in 1944 Italy and identifying his torturers as fascists, the explanations offered for the film are generally political), it is the absolute expression the filmmaker gives them that counts. Trying to justify the film as some sort of comment on the persistence of fascism in contemporary Europe or as a statement about consumer culture (although its political context can't be entirely dismissed, it should not be overemphasized either) makes nonsense of what Pasolini is actually giving us, an ultimate vision of power and debasement that defies all efforts at rationalization.
Pasolini's aggressive conceit is compounded by the shrewd way he draws the viewer into the film through a program of forced sexual identification. The acts being committed may be indefensible, but they are, at least initially, arousing and Pasolini is unwilling to deny this inherent attraction in even the most horrifying sequences. The eighteen victims are evenly split between male and female, so as to appeal to viewers of all orientations and they are all young and well-shaped. In an early sequence, the victims are selected, brought in front of the four Masters and then forced to "audition" for the men (and viewing audience) by stripping and having their physical merits assessed. Later, this voyeuristic program is repeated when the victims are again stripped bare and arranged in a semi-circular pattern with only their buttocks exposed. The men walk around the semi-circle, judging which victim has the "best ass". The judgement is based solely on the feature in question, since the rest of each victim, including his face, is hidden. Thus the individual, reduced to a body in the initial scene, is further debased by having his identity defined by a single feature, a feature frequently viewed with shame and disgust. In both scenes, the film's audience finds its voyeuristic mirror in the Masters since, like them, its members are (presumably) fully clothed and watching the (at least occasionally erotic) proceedings from a safe vantage point. As a singular expression of disgust, Salò is harrowing enough, but when the viewer is so thoroughly included in that disgust, it becomes almost unbearable.
As a work whose content consists principally of sadistic torture, Salò was certainly exceptional in 1975, but today this content has largely been mainstreamed through the efforts of such "torture-porn" offerings as Hostel and Saw, films which are no more justifiable than Pasolini's. So what separates the earlier film from today's offerings, apart from the fact that it's considerably more imaginative? Authorial intention, as far as it comes across on-screen, would seem to be one of the chief differences. While the current crop of products evince a calculated nihilism, Salò feels like the genuine expression of a single outraged individual. Directors like Eli Roth cook their product for maximum saleability, concocting a crude series of bloody gags and a cool cynicism to match, satisfying their largely youthful audience who, they believe, wants to have its blithely nihilistic world-view confirmed. In addition, such directors seem to take a real delight in staging their bloody humiliations. If the directorial presence in Hostel is aligned with the torturers, in Salò it seems more in line with the victim. It is not that Pasolini evinces any sympathy on behalf of the victims - if anything, he is more brutal with them than Roth - but, his anguished presentation of their suffering implies a degree of personal identification that doesn't extend to the Masters. Regardless of its author's actual mindset at the time of filming (and whatever insight biographical accounts can offer us doesn't change what comes across on the screen) Salò registers as a brutal howl of pain, a pronouncement of a despair personally felt. In expressing this despair on the screen, the director takes, not the position of a gleeful torturer, but that of a committed artist who, in staging the humiliations, forces himself to experience them as well. It is this personal stake in the project that, if not able to provide the film with a justification that it doesn't need, at least endows it with a certain importance, the importance of an ultimate, deeply felt aesthetic gesture.
This post was selected as a link of the day on The House Next Door for December 6th.