It’s always the same when I tackle Pasolini—the first encounter escapes me. Pasolini doesn’t come at you head-on; it’s more like embroidery, which can seem simple, unrelentingly repetitive. So it went the first time I saw Salò. Of course, there’s that cold preamble; the roundup without pity or explanation is magnificent, but that kind of magnificence is nothing more than a chilling jolt to our conscience.
Then comes the long intestinal progress. The body, the heart of the matter, is full of excrement. Yet that’s not where horror resides; that aversion—the repulsion for shit—was instilled in us from earliest childhood, so the long progress is familiar and repetitive, like our daily progress, I believed, already tired of what seemed a simplistic, somewhat childish provocation. So I thought, keeping a safe distance. But, of course, that’s exactly what’s at stake: the roots of good and evil in the virgin soil we all begin with, that soil made fertile, yes, fertile, by excrement. But then nothing—or rather “something”—pushes us, the previously distant audience, to watch with that hasty secretion of pleasure and horror. We do not watch with the victim’s dry mouth of confusion but with the avid wet mouth that suckles at the primal pleasure of torture, taking refuge behind the screen of an ineffective confinement, that of denial.
For the potential victim is clearly exhilarated by the spectacle. It’s obvious that he has unwittingly become a hysterical torturer—the spectacle of torture is entertaining because there is no flesh or person beyond the sculpted ballet of torn flesh, of blood, always the same blood, of silence, always the same silence. And we must now reveal to ourselves, admit to ourselves, that the cries of pleasure and pain are so similar, depending on whether you’re in one body or another. The body of the spectator, the one inside the film, or our own bodies—there is no more difference, that is Salò’s monstrous stroke of genius, the principle that fiction is no longer before us, it is no longer a projection that we’re invited to witness but an invisible hemorrhage.
And though the hemorrhage is everywhere, the spectator feigns relaxation with that sated smile worn by Cuban-cigar aficionados after a good meal and a cognac. But now what’s being savored is strictly the inexhaustible triumph of the variety of modes of torture. What a prodigious imagination! And all of this to deny that we ourselves are the monster. Whether we try to hide behind our hands or a window, we don’t want to miss a second of the bloody torments of which we are both victim and satiated accomplice.
This is why we had never seen such a film before and will probably never see one again. Pasolini makes the vector form of fiction burst into reality, a first vector for the image that enters us and a second, reciprocal one by which we project ourselves into the fiction.
It’s no coincidence that the mathematical symbol for a vector has the shape of an arrow, for arrows are everywhere here—they come at us from every direction, fly off every which way. It’s a battle in which we’re faced with ourselves, the first fiction that is multiplied, unpredictable, cruel. A fierce battle, the outcome of which is uncertain.
And we cannot help but admit that what we’re dealing with here is our unconscious yet voracious appetite for crime. The spectacle is an outcome that keeps us from dirtying our hands.
Long after I first saw it, this film haunted me. I couldn’t rid my mind of the spectacle of torture, now a victim, then a torturer, what a hellish position, to have one foot on one bank of the Styx, the other across the water. And the black river of my memory for an indelible mirror. For months I blamed the film for my suffering.
The film was guilty, yes it was. I took my head in my hands, hid my eyes behind my fingers, but the images kept streaming by. Then I “exonerated” the film. I watched it again the way you look at yourself when you no longer want to hide anything. Aside from the fact that it’s a masterpiece—I understood this later—you have to approach this film as a rite of initiation, one that leads to the Round Table, the one where you have to dare to take your place on the granite bench to learn what your miserable or flamboyant fate will be.
If the soul has acquired the lightness of the knights’ souls, there is no conscience. But if the soul is still too heavy, the bench’s stone will open up and plunge you into a horrifying abyss. This was probably my state of mind the first time I saw Salò—I wasn’t ready. The sword of my soul wasn’t sharp enough; it takes time to develop that, an occasionally painful process but such an intense one. You must know whether to risk seeing Salò through to the end the first time; you must know the exact measure of your strength. But isn’t this how we become hardened?
Since then I have told all censors, all conscientious forbidders who claim there is a danger in it, that a work of art must “Be.” Be.
Salò must exist whether you’re ready to see it or not. It is the prehistory of the world, and like the caves of Lascaux, what is essential is that it exist—though some will always forbid watching it. The fact is, “they know a thing or two about it.”
This film made me understand, for the first time, a notion I’ve since claimed for my own: the existence of the work of art that no longer depends on the spectator, for its function, visible and invisible, is to serve the very essence of its “génie.”
Dictionary definition. Génie: an invisible benevolent being. Somewhat similar to (but without the symbolized appearance of) a guardian angel. [Breillat is also playing on the French word’s other meaning, “genius.” —Ed.]
Invite yourself to the ceremony!
Director Catherine Breillat’s films include 36 fillette, Romance, Fat Girl, The Last Mistress, Blue Beard, and The Sleeping Beauty, which opened in the United States in July 2011. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD edition of Saló.
Translated by Nicholas Elliott.