Nov 11, 2015

Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom

Everyone has heard of 120 Days of Sodom, the much-excoriated novel by the Marquis de Sade, written while he was in prison in 1785, and not published until the 20th century.  But most people haven't read it.

I have, for a paper I wrote in grad school.  Or at least I skimmed through it.

Four wealthy libertines decide to try out every sexual gratification there is.  So they shut themselves up in a secluded castle for four months with 46 victims: their own daughters, some male prostitutes, some exceptionally attractive teenage boys and girls, and some exceptionally ugly older women.   They get ideas from four experienced prostitutes, who tell stories of "passions," or erotic acts.

Though the list is long -- 600 items -- it omits a lot of  common sexual acts, fetishes, and paraphilias, and includes a lot of weird ones.  All of them require the act to be non-consensual.

Sacrilege is apparently a big turn on: the victims are forced to renounce God, spit on crucifixes, desecrate communion wafers, and so on. And so is anal sex, which Sade perceived as a kind of sacrilege.

But violence is the biggest draw.  A month is devoted to the "cruel passions," various types of torture.  Another month is devoted to the "murderous" passions: burning alive, disemboweling, and otherwise killing victims.

Gay Italian filmmaker Piers Paolo Pasolini adapted it Salo (1975), substituting World War II fascists for libertines.  He adds a bit more plot, including a hetero-romance, and ups the humiliation factor.

There's a ton of male nudity, with many very attractive male bodies, and a lot more gay sex than in the original book -- but it's presented as much more shocking than audiences today may find it: "Look, that man is having sex with another man!"

Actually, the whole movie is somewhat less shocking than one expects from hearing its history of banning and censorship.  Today you can see much, much worse in the torture porn genre, like Saw and The Human Centipede.

Pasolini was killed on November 2, 1975, shortly before Salo was released.  If this is his "farewell" to the world, it's curious that he presents same-sex acts as universally degrading, as bestial, and gives the only hint of tenderness, compassion, and love to heterosexuals.

But maybe not so curious.  His other movies present same-sex acts as, at best pleasant diversion from the heterosexual romance that is the theme of everyone's dreeaming.

He was gay, but apparently he wished he wasn't.