Posts Tagged voyeurism

L’important c’est d’aimer (Zulawski, 1975)

Foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth the hell,
Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view in thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.

– Lady Anne, Richard III

Tragedy is an addiction, and few films can claim to understand this existential malaise better than L’important c’est d’aimer. The brainchild of Andrzej Zulawski, surely the most idiosyncratic of all great Polish directors, this is a work that heedlessly severs all connections with the cerebrum in full-throttled pursuit of its fleeting heart; the latter a diaphanous fugitive in an entropic wastescape of savaged dreams and slaughtered desires. Notorious for the delirious excesses of his cinema, Zulawski here exercises a modicum of visual restraint that reaps wrenching rewards. Feverish eroticism, perhaps the hallmark of his oeuvre, is thus supplanted by fervent emotionalism – though the director’s provocatory emphasis on expression above all else remains uncurbed, giving free rein to the temperamental convulsions that both define and plague his characters. In his attempts to decipher these characters’ feelings, Zulawski tangos with forces that are as cataclysmic as they are cathartic, as profane as they are profound. Accordingly, the film hinges upon an axle of erratic extremes; a torrid farrago of quietly potent melancholia and explosively crude melodrama that’s driven by both corrosive animalism and redemptive humanism. But even if his cinematic canvas keenly revels in all this chaos, the director’s overarching intent is never beyond doubt: within its feculent panorama of degradation and sleaze, his film pulsates with empathy, with sensitivity, with spirituality. As its English-language title so boldly declares, everything boils down to That Most Important Thing: Love.

In a world populated by a bizarre brood of gangsters, perverts and raging queens, Zulawski narrows in on a trio of tormented losers – all three damaged beyond repair, and reacting against their latent misery with differing (but equally calamitous) methods. Maybe life has failed them, or maybe they have failed themselves; either way, the rotten stench of disappointment intoxicates the film, incapacitating the characters’ respective psyches. (Love becomes synonymous with pain, and masochism therefore assumes a healing potential.) Corruption is rife, with all individuals subservient to a cycle of exploitation that rears its head in the form of debauchery and leaves its legacy with the glorification of debt. Zulawski’s piteous love triangle is therefore rendered motionless by each participant’s woeful belief that they owe something to another, a misguidance that exposes their fragilities and leaves them open to catastrophe. Even so, any attempts to emancipate oneself from these chains are rapidly, viciously curbed by the malevolent entities that lurk within the film’s darkest precipices. And while passion freely consumes the wannabe-romantics and instils in them a desire for change, it’s not enough to counter the noble allure of self-sacrifice: as Nadine, the tragic heroine of the piece, offers her body to her devoted admirer Servais in recompense for her own debt, the latter denies his sexual impulses – choosing instead to preserve the purity of his love in a realm where such ideals are nothing but archaic.

Zulawski’s enrapturing opening sequence, in which a softcore porn shoot momentarily lapses into tenderness before devolving into a violent brawl, initiates an undercurrent of self-reflexivity that channels its way throughout the story at hand. When Nadine, the film-within-a-film’s reluctant star, is instructed by the tyrannical director to not only have sex with a bloodied (and presumably dying) character, but to also scream “je t’aime!” whilst doing so, the actress stumbles – for she, too, is guilty of sanctifying love. It’s here that Servais, then an onlooking photographer, announces his presence by capturing the fading star at her tearful, lowest ebb: “I’m an actress… I do good stuff. I only do this to eat.” Instantly enamoured with his subject, and also able to relate (the ensuing scenes divulge his own complicity in the very same industry) Servais implants himself into the mundaneness of Nadine’s everyday existence. There, we encounter Jacques, her neurotic cinephile of a husband (their marital home is littered with publicity photos and movie posters) who feebly disguises his perpetual sorrow with an endless series of tics and quirks. Quickly, swiftly, a crisis is born: the creator of images and the lover of images both vying for the affections of the image herself. Meanwhile, Zulawski uses Servais’ devotion (the photographer borrows $20,000 to finance a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in the hope of salvaging his beloved’s career) to contrast the highbrow world of the theatre with the lowbrow world of pornography – only to then realise that, of course, there is nothing to contrast.

As his drama unfolds, the febrility that one associates with the director’s imagery remains somewhat tempered, his visuals appearing to capitulate to those staples of classical cinema: narrative and performance, here unerring in their potency. But although the content of his frames is subdued in comparison to his more opprobrious efforts, Zulawski’s camerawork is surely the most fiendish that it’s ever been – a wilful, almost gleeful exponent of the fatalism that haunts the film; perhaps even an antagonist in its own right. Restless and constantly roving, his camera performs a frenetic, interrogatory dance around its victims, as if to hound out their clandestine feelings before laying them bare to the barbarism of the outside world. This beleaguering ballet is interspersed with jarring close-ups of our protagonists’ vulnerable visages in moments of torture, their defencelessness devastating amidst the stylistic onslaught instigated by their director. Coerced by the camera into a series of claustrophobic corridors and stairways, it’s little wonder that these characters react so illogically to the saga that overwhelms them. And yet, Zulawski has the audacity to turn a blind eye to the ailments that he inflicts upon his creations, frequently cutting a scene as the height of its sentimental prowess – as if he can no longer bear to contain the anguish that he so readily nurtures. The effective simplicity of these tactics endows his work with an emotional architecture that’s every inch as baroque as the more visibly ornate stylisations that would follow. Though, as reflected within the film’s key domestic settings (has any filmmaker ever used décor and space as adroitly as this?), his is a structure that’s in evident decay – illustrated by vast expanses of emptiness with glimpses of disordered clutter; the banality of his mise-en-scène concealing just how poignantly attuned he is to his characters’ psychologies.

Towards film’s end, there’s a notable instance where Jacques’ own disordered clutter breaks free from its confines (both mental and physical) and subsequently lays waste to his living space, swamping it with the images that prove so dear to him. It signifies a final attempt to engage with his twisted demons, a valiant endeavour to feel alive that’s realised all too late. In Zulawski’s hands, love is our lifeblood, and the requisite catalyst for the salvation of the soul. But this director’s depiction of that most important thing is saturated with hurt and fraught with pain; debilitated as little more than an ideal to be mauled by the obligations of our habitual lives. As his frayed narrative tears itself to a closure, it’s not love that unites his tangential threads, but a sense of impending doom. Converging in the name of a preordained tragedy, his characters frantically attempt to forge meaningful connections in the ruthless universe that they inhabit. Is this really love, or is it plain old despair? As the lyrical orchestrations of an eerily familiar Georges Delerue motif elevates its destructive misfits unto the plane of the mythical (a reference to le mépris late into the film posits the text as the disfigured descendant of a more prominent tale of broken romance and its relation to art), Zulawski performs a feat of inversed escapology that dispels all such concerns. With the narrative swelling to its inevitable crescendo, for once the director resists the temptation to cut away prematurely. Lingering upon his final, irrevocable scene, he immerses the viewer in unbridled agony and harrowing beatification, compelling us to bear witness as love – that of the doomed, hopeless variety – transcends and transfigures, divulging and affirming its unimpeachable irrationality once and for all. Finally then, Zulawski locates the heart for which he’s been searching – and, in a direct mirror of the film’s opening scene, he delivers those words for which we’ve so desperately been yearning: “je t’aime… je t’aime…”

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The Films of Pedro Costa

As the erroneously-maligned 1980s drew to a close, an unheralded revolution was only just beginning. Deep in the outermost fringes of the arthouse circuit, there emerged O sangue (1989) – a feature which plays like an overeager cinephile’s fever dream. Its director appears to perceive the act of homage as paramount (the spirits of Bresson, Nicholas Ray and The Night of the Hunter are unavoidable), whilst his aesthetic strives to emulate the misanthropic weight of a classic noir; a gloomy, evocative score doing much to complement the attempt. Perhaps the most luxuriously photographed effort of its decade (so breathtaking is its beauty that the work seems almost polychromatic, despite being filmed in black-and-white), this meandering, enigmatic depiction of disenfranchised youth ultimately suffers from the reverence of cinema over subject. Though wondrous to look at, the film remains too consumed by its plethoric romanticism to fulfil its commitments to Lisbon’s forgotten adolescents – O sangue ends up sidelining its characters’ struggles in a manner reminiscent of the wider society that appears oblivious to their existence. At this early stage in his career, its director Pedro Costa can be deemed only a proficient poseur.

Nevertheless, in spite of his debut’s limitations, the seeds for Costa’s future upheavals have already been sown. O sangue may be glaringly anomalous in his oeuvre (its veneration of surface sheen would prove uncharacteristic, whilst the film’s opening, discomfiting slap to our protagonist’s face marks the only act of outright kineticism that the director has indulged in to date), but it initiates a series of concerns and motifs that would be explored more thoroughly in the ensuing years. Definitive themes are already visible: social maladjustment; emotional deracination; traumatising histories, both personal and political. Especially pertinent is his presentation of the makeshift family: a group of impoverished individuals forming bonds of protection, guided by the misleading ideal of “safety in numbers”. Given that O sangue‘s primary achievements are technical however, its ramifications upon the director’s output naturally follow suit. Costa’s jarring pre-eminence of close-ups begins here, with characters that stare directly back into their audience, as if to condemn our own collusion in their invisibility. The sterility of a modern, urban world is exposed and its latent inequalities excoriated as shots of intimidating, high-rise apartment blocks are contrasted against the ramshackle homes of the downtrodden (no filmmaker uses architecture more creatively, with frames often segmented multiple times over to punctuate the concealed incarceration that’s synonymous with these habitats). Above all else, O sangue is crucial for inaugurating its director’s ability to locate grace in the unlikeliest of settings; his unparalleled compositions managing to invest the ugly and/or mundane with an elegance that’s as redemptive as it is remarkable. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa may well be a poseur – but he’s one with vast reserves of potential, just waiting to be fully realised.)

By the time of Casa de lava (1994), Costa has made the first of his quantum leaps forward. Never again would he make the mistake of abandoning his characters in pursuit of pictorial bliss – from here on, the director is on a quest for truth, searching for an aesthetic that would do justice to the marginalised subjects whom only he considers worthy of immortality. Still, the allure of his cinematic heroes is yet to be curbed, but where O sangue struck predominantly derivative notes, Casa de lava seems only inspired in its tributes. Conceiving the film as a loose remake of Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, Costa relocates his action to the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, and borrows the basic outline of the earlier story: a Western nurse finds herself transported to a distinctly un-Western society in order to care for an incapacitated (in our case, comatose) patient. This template aside, Casa de lava draws its power entirely from its own director’s stylings. Gone are Tourneur’s chiaroscuro hallucinations, replaced here with spectacular long-shots of Fogo’s volcanic landscapes and intimate snapshots of its inhabitants. Costa nurtures his burgeoning taste for ethnofiction: at times, the film seems to detach itself entirely from the constraints of narrative and uninhibitedly wanders into the surrounding community; a documentarian’s portraiture of a lost civilisation. As insatiable as this impulse for observational research is, the director remains dedicated to his reinterpretation of the classic text. His heroine is thus moulded into an entitled imperialist in a culture that she completely fails to comprehend (“Speak Portuguese!”): her condescension towards the native islanders astounding, her inability to grasp their customs revealing, and her myopic view of her own self-worth sickening. Costa scrutinises the unbalanced relationship between the colonialist and the colonised, sparing ample time for the latter in an attempted redress. Yet the director is astute enough to recognise his own status as an intrusive profiteer in this scenario and, therefore, his own inadequacies in depicting the local mores. His masterstroke is to counteract with a series of tactful elisions that sanctify the manifold mysteries of his environment, whilst simultaneously demythologising its innate exoticism – Casa de lava subsequently becomes a haunted ‘prison film’, with Fogo the jailhouse from which all its residents wish to escape. “Not even the dead rest here.” (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has already established himself as the cinema’s foremost poet of cultural displacement.)

Ossos (1997) offers another seismic shift (ostensibly to the left) as the director returns to Lisbon, and specifically the ghettos of Fontainhas – the destination to which Casa de lava‘s immigrants-in-waiting are invariably headed, and a location from which he himself hasn’t exited since. Fuelled by his experience of deprivation in Cape Verde, Costa decides to raise awareness of the poverty in his own backyard to staggering effect. As always, the director relies upon close-ups and ellipses as means of expression, but his Ossos finds itself more frequently susceptible to elongated takes than its elder siblings and, significantly, it redirects our gaze towards acts of narrative potency that the cogitative filmmaker of yore would have excised. Thus, we now squirm as a young father marches into the city with his newborn child in a bin-bag (the intent: to exploit the baby as a begging tool), and we gasp in horror as his teenage (ex-?)lover attempts to asphyxiate both herself and the very same child by opening the valve of a gas cylinder – the infant’s resultant wheezing frightening in its authenticity. O sangue‘s affectations seem light years away as Costa charts the mental and physical dilapidation inside Fontainhas with unembellished verisimilitude, forcing us to glare at the individuals from whom we’d ordinarily turn away. That’s not to say that Ossos is lacking in either formal ingenuity or positivity in content, however. Indeed, the film introduces one of the key innovations in its director’s move towards a new, slow(er) cinema: the density of soundscapes. Costa’s fertile aural backgrounds contradict the solitude and destitution within his foregrounds: children playing, adults brawling, police sirens blaring – the vibrant rhythms of the outside world are audible and cogent, alerting the viewer to the sheer strength of the neighbourhood’s off-screen’s presence. Accordingly, a sort of diasporic vitality materialises, stabilising the bottomless despair of the film’s characters and neutering any readings that pass judgement upon Fontainhas itself. For all their woes, Costa’s delinquents retain a fierce sense of dignity and pride, which translates into a community whose resilience the director deems worthy of admiration, in spite of its numerous, neverending problems. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has become cinema’s most eloquent champion of the disenfranchised.)

With In Vanda’s Room (2000), Costa takes the realism of Ossos to its logical extreme, and at last fulfils his promise of obliterating the behemoth that is the narrative cinema. This remains the most decisive of the director’s breaks with his past. Although Ossos took strides towards a deeper understanding of its locale and its residents, it exposed a filmmaker who wasn’t entirely at ease in his settings: much like in Casa de lava before it, Costa again uses a nurse from his own social class to function as his vantage point into an alien planet. In Vanda’s Room dispenses with this tactic and discards all traditional cinematic tools alongside it. Filming on digital video, the director uses the freedoms afforded by the new format to completely immerse himself in Fontainhas, now recast as a grimy purgatory in the process of being demolished by an unseen authority. Here is where the fusion of documentary and fiction becomes blurred to the point of appearing seamless, with Costa fixing his gaze upon the locals (many of them seen previously in Ossos, including the titular Vanda) and punctiliously weaving the minutiae of their day-to-day activities into a stream of loose vignettes that refuse exposition. In almost everyone’s case, those activities are bound to a cycle of substance abuse that’s impossible to repel. As the march of oncoming bulldozers amplifies with each passing hour, Fontainhas – or, at least, the director’s conception of it – finds itself overwhelmed by a network of hopeless addicts, and neither Costa nor his ‘characters’ withhold the details of their dependencies: broken needles, mangled veins, crack-induced spluttering – everything is laid bare before our eyes in a hyperreal opiate haze; the most poignant scene in the director’s entire oeuvre featuring Vanda and a possible lover discussing the effects of their addictions upon their respective healths, aware that they’re headed towards self-destruction but incapable of emancipating themselves from their fates. For once, Costa also indulges in the politicisation of his work. Characters express discontent at their marginalisation (“It’s the life we’re forced to live.”) and rant against the state of their nation (“Our country is the poorest, the most pathetic of all.”), but the director’s criticisms aren’t always so vociferous. In one instance, Vanda steals a discarded model boat, declaring the scrap “an antique!” to her ageing mother with childlike enthusiasm, only to then wonder out loud: “Don’t you think I could get at least 5,000 for it?” – Costa recording the fact that it’s here, on the peripheries of capitalism, where commodification is at its most toxic. Surely the most morally potent of all the director’s features (the implications of looking away from the screen aren’t lost on the viewer), In Vanda’s Room is a breathtakingly claustrophobic memoir of social subterraneanism at the dawn of a new millennium; a film that cultivates a shared intimacy between audience and text which ends up redefining the very experience of spectatorship in the cinema. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa is his generation’s most innovative purveyor of filmic realism.)

Finally, we reach Colossal Youth (2006). To this point, the director’s filmography has offered the perfect auteurist case study – each effort building upon the last, developing and refining his cinema with the goal of attaining an honest transparency that will appropriately serve the anguished souls within his frames. Colossal Youth attains that goal. This is the apotheosis of a two-decade journey; the monument that seals its maker’s place in the pantheon. It borrows heavily from his previous offerings: the faces and the sounds, the mysteries and the languor, the distant yet palpable empathy. The delineation between reality and fiction continues to be inscrutable (DV is now established as the format of choice), whilst the political inclinations of In Vanda’s Room are now given centre stage. More than Casa de lava, this is Costa’s “zombie movie”, boasting an utterly passive protagonist (Ventura) who roams the streets of Lisbon in search of blood (his offspring) – shuffling languidly from place to place, arms dangling down the sides of his lanky build; a doomed sleepwalker. To accommodate Ventura’s taste for impermanence, the director’s scope becomes both broader and more complex: drug addiction remains a fact of life, but the local government’s social regeneration policies offer a reprieve from this bleakness – and yet it’s these very same policies that destroy the celebrated unity within Fontainhas, dispersing its former slum-dwellers into a complex of formidable condominiums whose geometric splendour chills with its glacial afterglow. It’s this officially-licensed disintegration of community that provokes Ventura’s amblings; our vagabond/patriarch intruding upon nearly every scene as he searches in vain for the ‘family’ that was so coldly stolen from him. Costa uses this first-generation immigrant’s experiences to deconstruct the understanding of ‘home’ and decompress the concept of ‘time’. Colossal Youth thereby exists in a fluid state of perpetual limbo, vacillating between past and present, Cape Verde and Portugal, squalor and affluence; an anthology of unfulfilled life, complete with digressive memories, immobilised dreams and unreliable oral histories. The director’s humanism is now at its zenith, and as he walks alongside his aimless zombie he consistently transforms the allegedly mundane into high art – daring us to question his motivations as he immortalises his protagonist’s existential crisis with shots of mesmeric grandeur. This, too, becomes the tale of Costa’s ontogeny: his role has progressed from that of mere director to that of an alchemist extraordinaire, capturing unremarkable stories from undesirable individuals and moulding them into dilemmas of monumental gravitas. His is a universe that has come to demand radical modes of perception and reception, but it’s one that offers enormous rewards for such pliancy. Only in Colossal Youth – a virtual fugue state on film – can the act of a (possible) son chopping an apple for his (possible) father seem genuinely revelatory; the greatest gesture of tenderness that mankind is capable of. Now, with the film’s omniscient, epiphanic power in his armoury, the revolution is complete. There can be no more denials: at this stage in his career, Pedro Costa must only be saluted – for it is he, by a considerable distance, who is the most important filmmaker working today.

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Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, 1975)

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ANTE INFERNO

Heil Pasolini! From the dying embers of Italy’s fascist nightmare, this provocateur extraordinaire found truth, beauty, freedom and above all things love. Make no mistake, the iniquitous repute of cinema’s most notorious bête noire is entirely just: Salò depicts the debauched, the depraved and the disgusting with indefatigable relish. Even so, the film is not deplorable… never deplorable. No, the surface repugnance of the director’s masterpiece may overshadow the appeal of its naïve extremism and its truculent fury, but the rectitude behind his achievement sears the memory long after its numerous horrors have subsided. Pasolini’s sentiments are as pure as his visuals are lewd; exemplars of a tormented artist’s last stand against a world dismissed as beyond redemption. Galvanised by this incendiary vitriol, Salò unleashes a violent barrage of ideas and images whose cumulative impact achieves the coup of transplanting its inter-filmic suffering directly into the viewer’s psyche; this dualistic infliction of abuse forming the crux of the director’s hermetic dystopia – a cause and product of the nihilism that so repulsively engulfs his subtexts. His is a work that seemingly revels in the darkness of the abyss; a work that venerates murder, rape and torture whilst denigrating their respective meanings unto the level of sadistic pleasure; a work that trades in on its puerile shock value to actively lust after reprehensibility – eventually attaining the ideal with incomparable causticity.

But Pasolini was too skilled an artist – or perhaps too conflicted a man – to wallow so unremittingly in literal misery-porn. The director’s pessimism finds itself both emboldened and muddied by the ridiculous, possibly even humorous treatment of his material. Salò‘s problematic hinges upon this dogged refusal to capitulate to our understanding of tragedy: its narrative’s mechanisms grind out devastation that’s deprived of sentiment and laden with camp, nonsensical satire. Thus, the perverted quartet of oppressors who invoke its infernos are rendered nothing more than mere pantomime villains at the heart of an elaborate farce; the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse recast as hysterical drag queens, dancing their way toward a 20th-century Armageddon. Pasolini’s tone is wild and unruly, veering from the cataclysmic to the gelastic with the blink of an eye (provided, of course, that the eye in question hasn’t been gouged from its socket). Nevertheless, his purpose is clear, for nowhere in Salò is it possible to properly process the magnitude of its victims’ pain – and in thwarting his audience’s cathartic needs, the director endeavours to expose and then redefine the limitations of human empathy. Unable to reconcile the abominations on-screen with any depth in the film’s emotional matter, we end up lapsing puritanically into a moral panic (though not unjustly). Pasolini’s relentless antagonism drives the film into a crevasse unto itself, in which it harbours a disaster so incomprehensible that it become an exercise in the anti-tragic. Reason – as we once understood it – no longer exists.

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CIRCLE OF MANIAS

If Salò succeeds in the anti-tragic then it surely excels at the anti-erotic. Populated by the lithe, pubescent figures of its uniformly-unclothed teenage captives, the film invites titillation only to emphatically molest it. Pasolini’s camera doesn’t always shy away from the expected gaze – skin, torsos, pubic hairs and genitalia all appear in close-up – but his imagery’s pornographic potential is either offset by the victims’ howls of anguish or supplanted by the perverse glares of their tormentors. The director thus pries open a chasm between object and desire that’s impossible to traverse; our latent aphrodisia neutered by the all-too conspicuous framework of exploitation which effectively desexualises an otherwise attractive group of bodies. The distance that Pasolini begets between viewer and content subsequently materialises inside his frames themselves. Brandishing his mastery as an aesthetician beyond compare, he constructs a series of tableaux informed by the classical elegance of High Renaissance paintings, carefully dividing the action within each of these impossibly-perfect compositions: trauma relegated to the background, with emptiness and/or irreverence dominating the foreground. As the atrocities increase, so too does the physical distance between the two planes; the director at once emulating the reality of marginalised agony, maintaining the tradition of its artistic veneration, and posing the question: is the horror any less real if we’re forced to remain blind to it?

In this paraphilic paradise, the characters’ suffering finds itself incarcerated by the inexorable allure of Pasolini’s artifice. Beauty is therefore as much a curse as it is a blessing: a distraction; a masquerade that protects barbarism; a fallacy. Whilst condemning his own aesthetics, the director incorporates a not-unrelated discussion on the subject of eugenics. Salò‘s victims are chosen as such for their physical perfection, their masters’ filtering procedures unmistakably calling to mind the Nazis’ vision of a flawless gene pool (the geometrical precision of the film’s mise-en-scène further evokes the regime’s ruthless sense of order). However, where Hitler & co. were intent on preserving the “master race” (albeit by destroying others), Pasolini proves hell-bent upon obliterating it altogether. The hollow ideal of an Aryan utopia is thus disembowelled, evaginated and then beautified as the director lambasts the very notion of unnatural selection; his total disillusionment with the modus operandi of interwar Europe’s purportedly “developed” societies blisteringly apparent. Given his Marxist sympathies, it’s unsurprising that this contempt should extend beyond the obvious extremist targets and into the more general domain of capitalism itself. It’s the ubiquitous value of rabid consumption which he denounces most vehemently of all, and it’s the culture of greed that it perpetrates which enables his clinical debilitation of intercourse: he invades this most intimate of acts and reduces it from its zenith as the utmost expression of love to its nadir as the vilest demonstration of hate – where bodies are rendered commodities (if that) in transactions impelled by the privileged perversions of the ruling classes. Enveloped by this ever-decaying morality, Pasolini’s eroticism perhaps appears not quite anti-erotic per se, so much as a mere reflection of the dominant, ruthlessly systematic approach to human life engendered by the reverence of money over man.

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CIRCLE OF SHIT

Adopting as his mantra the notion of “absolute power corrupting absolutely”, the director retools Sade’s lascivious libertines (in Salò: a Bishop, a Duke, a Magistrate and a President) and uses them to launch a multi-pronged, defiantly allegorical critique upon the vestiges of authority. The centrepiece of the film’s infamy – a Last Supper-inspired banquet of faeces – is therefore not simply an exercise in maximal revulsion, but also the very axis to all Pasolini’s promulgations. This grossly hypnotic celebration of the coprophilic, conducted at the whims of the merciless foursome, takes the film’s debasements to their inevitable extreme – though lest we forget, the scatological is a genuine fetish to which the libertines are far from alone in subscribing so avidly to; Salò‘s ignominious feast of shit is first and foremost a part of its sexual paraphernalia. Regardless, the scene in question remains irrevocably coloured by the director’s manifold political subtexts: Pasolini himself reportedly contended that the entire conceit was a figurative representation of a world increasingly obsessed with junk food, a statement that may seem somewhat ludicrous on paper but nonetheless keeps entirely in tune with the film’s acerbic depiction of social regression in the face of corporate esurience. The director thus pre-empts the acknowledged McDonaldisation of society and pushes the notion of immediate gratification to its entirely natural breaking point. In this typically sardonic twist, “fast food” is given a new meaning altogether whilst materialism backfires spectacularly upon the materialists.

As the multitudinous images of excrement-smeared faces recedes from the consciousness, what persists in residing is the perturbing perception that, in Salò, anything is possible. Pasolini crafts an alternate reality which conserves a familiar social structure (the hierarchical pyramid from top-to-bottom: elites → accomplices → victims), but he shatters the legislative glass ceiling designed to curb hegemonic abuses. Consequently, all restrictions to the tyrannies inflicted by the elites are eradicated – it is, after all, these individuals who make the laws of governance – and so it follows that there is no end to the complacency of the accomplices, nor any respite to the exploitation of the victims. As one of the libertines memorably declares: “We fascists are the only true anarchists.” – and the shit-eating episode therefore comes to epitomise the height of authoritarian anarchy; an anarchy of power that gleefully nurtures brutality. Even the slightest hint of dissidence is swiftly repressed in Salò‘s monstrously insular milieu (though one of the film’s most resonant images remains the Communist salute of a nude, recalcitrant guard, causing the libertines to collectively gasp in momentary disbelief before gunning him down). Detached from the outside world and shielded from its scrutiny, Salò can turn upon only itself. How appropriate then, that its inhabitants should end up ingesting the faecal so vividly – what better metaphor could there be for the transgressions of a societal microcosm hung up on self-extirpation?

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CIRCLE OF BLOOD

Lost amidst the grotesqueries is an assertion that offers cause for greater alarm than any of the film’s disconcerting visuals. Although frequently damned for his simplistic, bludgeon-like approach, Pasolini’s treatise decisively embraces the complexity within the historiography of fascism. So it stands that totalitarianism is acknowledged as an impossible goal and, with the film degenerating into its murderous finale, it suddenly emerges that a significant proportion of the prisoners have been covertly flouting the libertines’ preposterous “rules”. Naturally, the disobedience offers little cause for concern in its own right (given the context, its almost certainly admirable), yet the manner in which the dissent is exposed betrays the full, staggering extent of the director’s despondence in his fellow man. It’s easy to view Salò as an (overzealous) cautionary tale against the concentration of power in relatively few hands, but the film is interlaced with telltale signs that suggest something is gravely amiss with such perspectives: the prevailing passivity of the victims; the brief close-ups that allude towards not just their acceptance, but the actual enjoyment of their suffering. Bowdlerised emotions are biding their time and awaiting their release, and when the investigation into the adolescent deviance eventually commences, each of the detainees makes an attempt to delay their demise by accusing another of greater misdeeds. And so a domino effect ensues; the instinct for self-preservation devolving into a pathological desire to destroy one another, thereby provoking a battle for survival where it’s no longer the fittest that necessarily triumph, but the most ruthless. Salò‘s very foundations now crumble before our eyes – not due to the futility of the totalitarian ideal, but because its entire order is upended: absolute power doesn’t merely corrupt those who wield it, it defiles those that are subjugated by it too; the director contending that victims can become just as complicit in their victimisation as their oppressors. Faced with the banality of evil and the silence of humanity, Pasolini sees only one answer: a wave of annihilation – which, in this setting, is an act of love if ever there was one.

Salò‘s allegorical indictments threaten to read like failures; the insane ramblings of a misguided, troubled radical. Indeed, the director’s dejection becomes much easier to dismiss when one considers that his action takes place in a theatre of cruelty that’s like no other in cinema. If innocents and tyrants subsequently become indistinguishable, it’s because he coerces them into illogical scenarios from which it’s impossible to draw reasonable conclusions. Except therein lies the problem. Salò‘s extremities aren’t as extreme as decades of censorship would imply, and the horrors that occur within its confines are all too plausible for the contemporary viewer. For all his Brechtian distancing manoeuvres (his formalism, his abrasions, his vulgarity), Pasolini can’t quite suppress the devastating reality that lurks beneath the veil of his entropic vision. And he knows it. Painfully aware of his art’s woeful inability to incite a revolutionary overhaul of Italian society c. 1975, he retreats into a nihilistic wilderness and defecates on each and every one of his fellow citizens. In the film’s most confrontational gesture, he reverses a pair of binoculars to implicate his unwitting audience in the slaughters on-screen; challenging us to question the integrity behind our voyeurism, imploring us to look directly into the eyes of the inhumane. And yet, in spite of all the violence that occurs before our eyes, the utmost act of savagery is saved for the very last scene – a scene that yields nothing in the way of bloodshed and terror but instead offers a revelation which, really, we knew all along. That is to say: Salò has stamina; Salò has stealth; Salò is a survivor. Salò lives!

And long may it continue to do so.

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We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.

– Marcel Proust

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