One of the first things you learn in Art History 101 that art is really about “context.” A urinal is just a urinal, but when Marcel Duchamp placed that urinal in a museum, it was art. Not only was it art, but it was art that generated a lot of discussion.
An exploding diarrhea joke in Dumb and Dumber is low-brow juvenile humor, but the feces-eating scene in Salo or 100 Days of Sodom is art, because it is adapted from the Marquis de Sade, filmed by an Italian director. It even was given a Criterion Collection Edition.
The film itself is hard to digest (sorry for that pun). The premise, however disturbing, is intriguing: four aristocrats escape persecution from World War II by scouring Europe for eighteen teenagers, older prostitutes, and take up residence in an impressive estate. The four men use the teens as their personal sex slaves and objects of abuse, and the old prostitutes spin dirty stories for their entertainment. Somewhere there’s metaphor for war and absolute power and oligarchy in there somewhere, but the subject matter and story is too irrational to really extrapolate anything coherent.
120 Days of Sodom is always named as the most depraved film (aside from niche adult films), and it deserved that title. The children are led around on all fours, naked, and told to bark like dogs. They are raped and sodomized at the aristocrats behest, they are forced to eat feces, urinate in their captor’s mouths, and perform some of the worst things you could ever (or don’t want to) imagine. [The feces scene, to be fair, was difficult to watch and it was the only scene in which the captive showed fear and repulsion.] The aristocrats dress in women’s clothing and perform a marriage to one of the boys, dressed in bridal gown. This, for once, is not meant for comedy, rather showing “cross-dressing” as one of their forbidden, taboo behaviors. Either way, it was unsettling, to say the least, to see a child involved. In addition, they force a boy and a girl to consummate in from of them. I could go into even more detail of the various tortures and abuse they inflict upon their captives, but I hope you get the picture. They are horrific rapists, child molesters, kidnappers, and murderers, and they are having the time of their lives doing it. Or are they? Their emotions even seem flat as they are engaging in their unspeakable crimes. I don’t want to watch their glee either; it’s just more upsetting to see all this play out with flat emotions.
In the finale, the children, deemed no longer of “use” to the aristocrats, are taken outside on the grounds and horribly tortured, maimed and murdered for the enjoyment of the four men. The men find equal enjoyment in both the rape and the murder of these children. They are all objects for their desires; the pact they make with each other allows them to have no judgements or blocks to their actions, they all revel in each other’s actions. It’s nihilist and dark and not only shows the worst of human nature, their actions are not even at all human.
How would a film with such reprehensible content gain artistic credibility? It’s all in context. It is based on 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, notable writer of film / genius of his time (with the setting of eighteenth century France replaced with Italy after World War II). The film is visually stunning, mostly due to the setting of the large estate. It is ornately decorated and set in a stately European mansion. The main parlor, with its wooden moldings, room looks classy as the prostitutes spin their tales of forced anal sex and other tales. Events happen without explanation and fanfare, but there’s a sense of dread along the film that keeps the morbidly curious going.
As far as acting, the four men who play the aristocrats are, I would assume, classically trained actors. I came to know them by nicknames, as in “the one with the beard,” “crazy eyes”, etc. They display the right amount of evil and sadistic pleasure in their actions. They wear the suits of 1940s European aristocrats, adding the “costume drama” element that can always improve a film. (Are Jane Austen film adaptations really be as compelling without attention to detail of the era?)
I’d imagine I’d have a visceral reaction to the film, perhaps having to stop it along the way for reprieve. To my horror, I felt emotionally flat during most of it. For one, the child captives remained passive to their plight. When being “examined” and “chosen” at the beginning of the film, they were complacent. During their stay, many accepted their fate and complied to requests without emotion. This Stockholm syndrome, shock, or acceptance of fate contributed to the overall feel of complacency. I don’t want to put forward the idea that I wanted them to act out more of their suffering and terror, but that would have made it real; the audience identifies with the victims and I would have had a more emotional response to the torture. My conclusion is that this was an intentional choice by the filmmaker; by making these children compliant the viewer identifies more with the captors; they are the ones who are given deeper characters. In fact, an interview with one of the actresses, she claimed that the time spent on set was light-hearted and fun.
The only times the children show fear is after the 120 days are up; they are no longer of use to the captors and their demise is also their entertainment. Each aristocrat takes their turn sitting in a chair in an ornate room with binoculars, watching the other three take each child and subject them to rape, stabbing, burning, eye gouging, tongue lacerating, and a whole cornucopia of whatever the special effects team could possibly show on camera. Each of the men shows interest in the torture, yet seem reserved.
The parting shot of the film focuses on two of the young men who have served as guards and associate captors, who were not given any speaking lines until now, dancing with each other as if they don’t have a care in the world, talking about a mundane subject. This ending gave me more pause than the rest of the film. When we watch typical horror movies, we expect some sort of mourning period, an ending in which the villain is banished, or even the twist ending where the protagonist loses after all. What we’ve watched is horrible; we want the film’s characters to mirror our feelings of terror. But this film ends on an unexpected, unrelated scene. There is no story of what happens to these aristocrats after their 120 days of hedonism; it ends when their subjects die.
I’ve made is very clear that I don’t have a pressing need for every film to wrap up neatly and for the protagonist to reign supreme. In fact, I seek out films that have ambiguous endings. However, when sitting through a film that normalizes kidnap, rape, torture, feces eating, it’s a real disturbance when the film ends on a mundane note. It’s a worse feeling than having a tragic, soul-sucking ending (i.e., Martyrs) or even a twist ending (i.e., Drag Me To Hell). I can, however, recognize that the director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, understands the art of film-making. The locale was striking, the scene placement was skilled, and perhaps the presentation and framing of each moment was skilled. I am unsure if the flatness of the actors was an artistic choice or not. However, none of these directing hallmarks provide much redemption for the mood and story (if any). Shortly after this was filmed, Pasolini was murdered, possibly from extortion. I’d imagine this narrative also adds to the intrigue of the film.
Who is this film for? Not many of us. Ultimately, it’s smut being given a pass as high art. Even if you are comfortable with violent/disturbing cinema, the content shown does not justify the story. There are metaphors to be had, the most simple one is “there are no depths to the evil of man.” Once could draw parallels from these captive children to those held captive in the concentration camps, but it seems to be an insult to the experience of those in the camps. If you are embarking on a doctoral dissertation of Italian Cinema, perhaps this is of use to you. Otherwise, like me, you are left with the conundrum of feeling bored by material you should feel repulsed by.
I have no doubt that reading de Sade’s source material leads to a different experience. The literary medium lends more to symbolism and character motivation. I am actually surprised that more effort has not been put into film adaptations of his work; as I am to understand (mostly from the excellent film Quills), his work was quite the talk of the town. Of all of his work to adapt, this was an odd choice. I have passed an adaptation of Justine while panning through Netflix choices, but I’m in no hurry to watch it.
If curiosity gets the best of you, for some reason this film is often available in its entirety on youtube. But be forewarned, you will not be a better person, a better film critic, a better cinephile. In fact, resist the urge to watch this and watch Quills instead. It has disturbing content, but at least it’s both interesting, well-directed disturbing content.