Tempted as one is to simply process this film (indeed, to digest it and then quickly excrete it) as a poker-faced recreation of The Aristocrats, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is more than just a blast of cathartic flatulence, cutting through the hypocrisy of hope. It is a rather humorless film of ice-cold outrage. It is the work of a man who had all but given up on anything other than his own anger. Its main obscenity is not that it presents social taboos without comment, in the manner of pornography, but rather that its aims are as high as Pasolini’s subject matter gets low. (Indeed, and with regard to its sexual implications, it’s functionally a great deal less provocative and dangerous than the hot-blooded libertine works of the Marquis De Sade.) In a strange twist of fate, what is an unequivocal assault on mankind’s eschatological consumerism has been accorded a cachet, by way of its reputation for extremity, that borders on an embodiment of consumerism. It’s a “must see” or, for many, a “must avoid” film.
In interview footage filmed during the making of Salò, Pasolini admits he hates the leaders who were then in power, clarifying that one always hates the powers that be at the moment of time that they hold power, which at least partially explains the fact that the film intends to comment on parallel eras. Taking its inspiration in roughly equal measure from De Sade’s novel, which is referenced in the film’s surtitle, and Dante’s Inferno, Salò repositions De Sade’s atrocity by setting it in 1944 Italy, during the waning years of fascist rule under Hitler and Mussolini. While its head is in WWII, its heart (or what passes for it) is most obviously concerned with mid-’70s consumerism. Humanity, in Salò, has ceased to represent anything other than transaction. Mind, body and soul (but mostly body) are all up for sale. And theft.
A quartet of libertines, assisted by armed guards and loquacious prostitutes, round up 18 of the finest pieces of ass they can find, anal-retentively splitting their crop between boys and girls (and I do mean that in the journalistic sense, as some—if not all—appear to be of questionably legal age). Having been harvested, the beautiful herd is sequestered in a countryside villa that’s, appropriately, about as erotically inviting as an Art Deco meat locker. There they are subjected to humiliation, rape, abuse, torture, unwelcome pansexuality, shit, blood, long stories, sadomasochism and, finally, death. Rather than present this banquet of degradation in a fever of hysteria, Pasolini films almost the entire movie in frigid medium shots. (The close ups that linger most vividly in memory are those from the dinner scene, in which viewers are treated with the opportunity to appraise the texture of shit and santorum as it clings to the diners’ teeth.) Fastidiously attuned to the denial of the comforting release of either eroticism or expulsion, Pasolini’s boudoirs of perversion lack De Sade’s scarlet hedonism. Quite the opposite, his boners reveal only the presence of spiritual rigor mortis.
Though easily the most sought-after DVD in the medium’s history, Criterion’s first pressing of Salò was pretty much a disaster in terms of its transfer. For its reissue, Criterion has ironed out a bunch of the kinks, though I still detect some edge enhancement in the film’s endless series of long shots. Colors are as gray as the film’s philosophical outlook, but I imagine they’re accurate. The sound mix isn’t quite as active as the cast’s unlucky bowels, but it’s not like you’re going to need any help gagging.
In the absence of a commentary track, Criterion has amassed a surfeit of apologies for the film (in text and interview form). No less than six essays grace the accompanying booklet, and the second disc (the first contains the film and trailer only) has not one, not two but three documentary featurettes in which cast, crew members and critics all try to describe what’s best left indescribable. One crew member talks about his refusal to actually see the movie, because he’d rather not relive what was the darkest hour in his life. A cast member enthusiastically talks about the thrill eating chocolate-and-candied feces gave him as an artist. And Catherine Breillat-dependable old Catherine Breillat-surmises that the movie was not meant to be shocking.