Salò is regularly both celebrated and decried as being the most obscene film ever made. It has been wailed about by critics and regularly tops Internet top tens of cinematic excess. Its relentless depiction of the torture and humiliation of Italian youths held prisoner and presided over by four sadistic libertines certainly isn’t easy or comfortable viewing. The subject matter is about as bleak as imaginable: an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s blackest book set in an occupied chateau in fascist Italy. Pasolini’s film has been understood in many different, and legitimising, ways. It has, naturally, been understood as a reading of Sade’s thought, a comment on totalitarianism or, as the director himself suggested, a critique of consumerism and a consideration of sexual politics. But what if we read it as a comedy?
I’ve seen Salò twice now. Some might suggest this is two times too many. The first viewing, at a sparsely attended screening at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2001 was, of course, unsettling. My most recent viewing was at a packed Paris Cinématheque as part of the current Pasolini season and the experience was a little different. Yes, the film was still difficult to watch, but the screening was notable for the sniggers and ripples of laughter that spread out throughout the film once the torture scenes got underway.
Why laugh at Salò? It could, of course, have been uncomfortable laughter as the audience struggles to process the brutal scenes of sexual abuse, humiliation and coprophagia. Maybe the laughter was one of relief that the film wasn’t as shocking as the hype had led them to believe it was. An uncharitable observer might note cultural differences between friendly Mancunian and colder Parisian crowds. I’m not quite what sure the nature of this laugher actually was, but there were however, more giggles at Salò than at some more traditional comedies I’ve seen.
Writing about the film in October, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, have noted that there are a number of jokes or straightforward old-fashioned corny verbal gags in the film, easily overlooked amongst the more striking scenes of torture (Vol. 13, Summer 1980, pp. 22-35). At one point, as Bersano and Dutoit note, the head libertine, or President, asks: ‘What is the difference between the number 8, a gate and a family? An 8 is always closed, a gate is sometimes open. “And the family?’ asks the other person. “They’re fine, thanks,” answers the President, overwhelmed with glee’ (p. 29). There are, I think, other comic moments to be found throughout the film. Rather than purely horrific, there is a sustained slapstick quality to many of the scenes as the libertines’ frenzied excitement sees them often literally fall over themselves to realise their desires. Equally, the sheer extremity of the ‘narratives’ that are provided to accompany and inspire the libertines sexual excesses have their own degree of burlesque, if very dark, humour. The incongruous ridiculousness of the libertines’ drag attire, particularly that of the bearded libertine Duke (Paolo Bonacelli) and the acutely strange looking and cross-eyed President (Aldo Valletti), prime candidate for a comic lead, if indeed the film has one, also clearly add a degree of humour.
The film has been pored over by theorists, but the humour in Salò has been noted by John Waters, himself a controversial film director. For me, there are even striking resonances between Water’s comedy Pink Flamingos (1972), released three years before Pasolini’s film in both Divine’s outrageous drag, that of the libertines, and, of course the scatological preoccupations of both films. Is Pasolini making an intertextual nod to Waters?
I think we’d be wrong, and perhaps slightly twisted, to watch Salò exclusively as a comedy. Although I believe there is humour in the film, it is ultimately, however, overwhelmed by the relentless torture and excess. What role, then, does laugher play in the film? Perhaps Salò’s relationship with resistance is revealing from this perspective. At a key moment, when one of the chateau’s prisoners is discovered having unauthorised sex with a serving girl and is about to be shot for his transgression, he confronts the libertines with a raised first, a universal leftist symbol of resistance and rebellion. This gesture is, however, futile as he is shot after a brief, but tense, stand-off. There is also a similar sense of futility in the film’s absence of narrative progression. As Éric Marty has suggested Salò is in many ways a very shallow film – there is no development of character or plot (Pourquoi le XXe siècle a-t-il pris Sade au sérieux?, Seuil, 2011). In this way, any value, meaning or satisfying resolution that a viewer would be able to take from the film through a happy ending, or any conclusive ending at all, is not supplied. This reinforces the overall inescapable horror of the Sadean, fascist and consumerist systems sketched out by Pasolini’s film. A satisfying narrative pay-off would, like the raised fist and, ultimately, the humour in the film, be futile in the face of these systems according to Pasolini’s pessimistic vision. If not, then, a comedy, comedy plays a role in the film in a way that captures a spectator off-guard but closes off the possibility of a redemptive reading of the film. Sniggering is futile.