The title card that appears in the opening credits of Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini’s “Recommended Bibliography,” seems to signal to the viewer that the filmmaker’s intentions can’t be fully understood without a familiarity with a written body of philosophical texts on the source author, Sade, by Pierre Klossowski, Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, and Maurice Blanchot.
This would be an unusual special pleading indeed, that what we’re about to see is a film of high seriousness and not simply a procession of repulsive, possibly pornographic sequences staged for a movie, if we were to give the list too much importance. It’s more likely, however, to read as a jesting deflation of the horrors to follow, which have their pitch-black comic angle. Few people ever attended a theatrical screening of Salò without some advance idea of what they were going to see. And the spectacle of joyless lubricity and dehumanizing cruelty and carnage visualized by Pasolini could not be further from the dry, dense, sometimes obscurantist and circular arguments to be found in the printed pages of his bibliographic sources.
Audiences of Salò have generally found this title card hilarious, in part because of prior knowledge that Pasolini was a filmmaker who also wrote voluminous, highly theoretical explanations of his own filmic intentions, and partly because the music playing over the credits is an orchestral rendering of “These Foolish Things,” a deeply sentimental 1940s tune that somewhat preemptively encapsulates the film as a chronicle of direly perverse romanticism. The title card, the war during which the film takes place, the selections of victims, the three circles of escalating sadomasochism into which Salò is divided, may all be summarized as the spectacular paraphernalia of human folly—“these foolish things” by which history is so overwhelmingly dominated. And so the film, including its intellectual references, comprises a bleak satire, not only of the perversities it depicts but of the depiction itself and its futility in imparting any “morally improving” lessons.
Other indications of Pasolini’s outrageous irony can be found throughout the film. In the salon privé to which the libertines repair after a hard day and evening of committing Sadean outrages, the walls are decorated with murals in the style of Léger, which seem to give their particular version of Fascism a modernist flavor less easily associated with “Fascism” than the precisely geometric art deco sconces and other hard-edged trappings of the villa. The libertines quote Proust, Baudelaire, and Nietzsche as erudite glosses on their activities; they make joking references to Dada, as if putting Dadaism’s depiction of the collapse of prewar values into everyday action. We could, with little imaginative stretching, presume that in these moments they speak, however ambiguously, for Pasolini himself—who, in many of his writings, betrayed a kind of aesthetic puritanism very much at odds with his filmic practice.
The bibliographic title card, at the same time, can’t simply be dismissed as Pasolini’s goof on intellectualism. Throughout his writings, and especially in those collected in Heretical Empiricism, the filmmaker carries on a spirited dialogue with precisely the concerns of Klossowski, Blanchot, et al.: that is, the implications of Sade’s atheism and his ideas about Nature, particularly in relation to Rousseau and the Enlightenment, which Pasolini in Salò transposes into a meditation on consumer society. The essays in question are roughly contemporaneous, exemplary of French theoretical writing at its most rarefied and, frankly, difficult to follow. They are particularly coiled, highly demanding forms of philosophical exegesis—with the exceptions of Beauvoir’s “Must We Burn Sade?,” which takes a more or less straightforward Freudian approach to Sade’s life and work, and Barthes’ Sade/Fourier/Loyola, which renders the structure of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom in the manner of a diagram that’s legible enough for the system of Sade’s hell to be appreciated as a system, with its own coherent logic, its rigorous timetable, its choreography.
It’s also true that Pasolini extracted from these essays many ideas that have visual correspondences in Salò. To cite one small example, Sade’s mania for numbering, which Barthes discusses, shows up quite early, when the libertines, en route to the lethal château, enjoy a rather lame joke about the number 8. Later, a modified version of Barthes’ architectural schematic of Sade’s Château of Silling appears as the film’s primary, theatrical proscenium, a salon in which the aged courtesans regale the assembled company with episodes from their precocious careers of whoredom. Here a fixed number of victims are ranged at the foot of each libertine’s “throne,” which is flanked on either side by paramilitary, older youths who enforce the obedience of all except their captors.
And in a scene in which the libertines, in their private quarters, drunkenly philosophize on the progress of their strictly regimented schedule of manias and orgies, they speak verbatim lines from the cited texts. This creates within the surreal world of the film a strange oasis of extratextual, or extrafilmic, discourse, for the lines seem not to relate at all to what we have witnessed but to an order of things that has been rigorously excluded from the movie itself—an oasis of reflectiveness free from the wartime conditions raging beyond the château’s walls, and in the social conditions of bourgeois order.
The question that has always haunted this film is whether Pasolini “went too far”—and, in some obvious respects, he went further than any academic exegetical reading list could justify, since a film is not a book; it explicitly shows us what the written word merely summons in our imaginations. But in the sense that Sade “went beyond” all limits and restraints of conventional literature, Pasolini’s film is a perfect, if circumscribed, mimicry of Sade on celluloid. It is something in many ways unsurpassable, even by the standards of ultraviolence and pornography that are common today in any fully inclusive video store. Unlike such fare, Salò is cold, literally calculated, a gear-work mechanism ruled by a sodden, oppressive agenda of horrors rather than an explosion of uninhibited sexuality or indiscriminate mayhem. Apart from an occasional outburst of rage by one of the libertines—which invariably seems “acted” for its effect on the victims, rather than a spontaneous urge—everything that happens in Salò is stylized, mechanized, prescribed, and proceeds “by the book.” Salò is further removed from the splatter film and the porno in that it exemplifies an ideological argument, an equation of Sade’s concept of Nature as the domain of the powerful with Fascism.
Conspicuous by its absence, the text that doesn’t appear in that title card remains essentially unfilmable. Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, if earnestly made into a movie, would necessarily run for many hours, if not for 120 days. The catalog of often physically impossible sexual combinations and maniacally complicated tortures it comprises would send the staunchest viewer running from the theater—or, obversely, put even the most enthusiastic voyeur to sleep. The book’s endlessness, its inexhaustible, continuously replenished energies of outrage, and its monotonously florid narration are the qualities of Sade that make reading his long-proscribed novels in their entirety an ordeal, if not an impossibility. Pasolini extracted the basic structural design of this novel and fleshed it out with an incongruous elegance and a certain trickster’s tact, discarding at least 90 percent of the action.
Pasolini’s bibliography acknowledges this limitation. It implies that there is more to be gleaned from Sade than any viewer could infer from what Pasolini attempted. We could also conclude that it’s a bit of a conjurer’s stunt, prefacing a gorgeously orchestrated effort at revulsion with an impeccable pedigree.
Gary Indiana’s most recent books are Last Seen Entering the Biltmore, a collection of early writings, and To Whom It May Concern, a collaboration with Louise Bourgeois. He is currently working on an untitled novel. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD edition of Saló.