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Distant Relatives: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Dogtooth

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

After weeks of Oscar movies I thought we'd get a little esoteric. But don't worry, you don't have to have seen either of these films, you just have to enjoy sex and violence like the rest of us.

There's lots of sex in your violence

Who doesn’t love violence and sex? We go to the movies and cheer at every explosion and gunned down bad guy. Our heart races at the excitement of the fight. And vanquished villains are best celebrated by beautiful men and women, the actors we idolize, stripping down for a love scene, strategically filmed. We watch fantasy up on the big screens where blood is often minimal, skin is plentiful, and the world makes sense. And what happens when when the fantasy ends? When we’re presented reality the fun ends pretty quickly.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom is notorious as possibly the most disturbing cinematic experience ever put on celluloid. The film follows a group of Facists who kidnap about twenty youths and take them to a beautiful villa for several months of sadism, abuse, mental and sexual torture, and eventually death (that’s not really a spoiler, you’ll not be expecting a happy ending). The film has resulted in censorship, bans and arrests throughout America, Euorpe and Austriala yet has been championed as a work of art by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat.

Dogtooth doesn’t quite have this reputation yet but it’s working on it. While being banned isn’t likely, its Academy screenings have already developed a delightful place in Oscar history with viewers booing, walking out and in at least once case, threatening resignation. The film is a view into the world of a Greek family, where the parents have isolated their children (to the point where they make up new meanings for common words) into a surreal existence. As the children, now adults, become increasingly sexual and increasingly aggravated at the fear of their own reality, events spiral out of control.

Horror films

So we have two films about the older generation secluding and abusing the younger that expect us not to look away. And to what purpose we ask. Is Pasolini presenting us with Facists who do the most horrible things imaginable to convince us that Facism is bad? Is there a purpose at all to the family in Dogtooth whose existence we can’t begin to believe ever possible? Furthermore, how can two films repel us by presenting sex and violence as reality and yet be so unreal?

Consider the modern horror movie where the difference is split. The violence is presented in gruesome realistic detail as part of the adrenaline rush of the genre. These films dare us to keep watching even though they promise to show us unpleasantness simply for the scare of it. But the sex is still strictly fantasy; developmentally arrested men and blonde bimbos tussle beneath the sheets unaware that their only purpose in the film is to be exposed and then executed. But it’s okay since they’re not real people with real feeling and lives. They’re just window dressing.  Films like this are routinely criticized for their dehumanizing and objectifying of human beings.

Real People

Perhaps by non more than Salo and Dogtooth, films that strip sex of all seduction, romance, or anything sexy and present people as nothing more than commodities to buy, sell, trade or kidnap as utilitarian means to the end of appeasing the all-powerful sex drive. As a comparison of Facism with Capitalism so extreme it deals in the sale of human objectification or as a comment on isolation from corruption to the extent it turns basic human sexuality into natural perversity and eventually self-destruction, Salo and Dogtooth suddenly seem like they’re saying something very real in their unreality.

Then again perhaps that’s not what either are about. These two films particularly have had critics and scholars puzzling over various interpretations. But if they are, what are we to take from them? If we’ve ever lusted after an objectified body (and who hasn’t?) are we as guilty as them as the maniacs in Salo? Do we they suppress ourselves into unhealthy resistance like the family in Dogtooth? When it comes to sex and violence we are always victims of and participants in the society that births us. So we retreat back into the Hollywood fantasy where the glistening perfect bodies tangle among each other like bullets forming a crossfire where our heroes never get hit. Sex and violence are fun again, we can enjoy unreality presented as reality and eschew the reality of Salo and Dogtooth presented as unreality

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Reader Comments (16)

Terrific article. Not sure I ever want to see Salo again after the first time 6-7 years ago, but you make convincing parallels.

Another film which can be paralleled to Dogtooth is Tangled. Both are about parental figures wanting to keep the next generation locked away from the rest of the world. for some selfish purpose.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Dogtooth is an interesting satire of overprotective parenting. Despite the incest, it's relatively tame.

Salo is garbage. I've seen it, and it's one of the most overrated movies ever. Violence for violence's sake, with nothing to say about it, is just horrific and painful viewing. I had to fast forward through many, many scenes.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew R.

Why are films where the purpose of the filmmaker is to shock and disturb an audience considered art instead of exploitation?

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Salo is one of those films that I'm just too afraid to watch, despite being curious as heck about it. As much as people praise it and call it a "masterpiece," I just can't do it. Someone once called me a prude because I refused to look at it, but is it really prudish in cases as extreme as this?

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Fuck the people who’d ridicule you for not wanting to watch an unpleasant movie that seeks to be unpleasant. Mysterious Skin ruined me and I wish to God I never saw it.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

/3rdfu11 - Different films attempt to make you feel in different ways. Some want to make you happy, some sad, some thoughtful and some aim to shock you. I'm not sure we can exclude all in the final category from being art just because. But it all comes down to your opinion of what the purpose of art is (or shock for that matter).

Personally I'm not sure I'm ever really shocked by a film, but I appreciate when a provocateur director tries to get a rise out of me with style and purpose. Haneke, Von Trier, Breillat, Noe and now Lanthimos with Dogtooth can be hit or miss, but I like the hits and the fact that not everyone out there is Chris Columbus.

thefilmjunkie - That said, I agree with /3rdfu11, watch what's in your comfort zone and to hell with anyone else. I find Salo interesting but I'm not sure it's essential viewing. Any of the directors I mentioned above are better at shock cinema.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

/3rtful: They're considered "art" because, ultimately, the best art makes you feel for at least some of the characters involved. Things like Salo may be the cheapest way to elicit such caring, but unlike, say, Russ Meyer, many critics have pretty much said there's at least some artistic worth to masochistic experiences like these two films (and Irreversible and In the Realm of the Senses and Seven Beauties and, if you want to stretch, even the Fellini Satyricon) but not so much to experiences like Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill and a split critics base on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (Village Voice loved it, but there was an article in the Toronto Star bashing it. Reading it I started thinking, "Why? Because it's FUN!?" Yes, I am a BtVotD fan. It's not the best film released in it's year (a small little plug for Performance, which could make a great Hit Me With Your Best Shot entry) but it is 2nd.) Ultimately, extreme masochism is something everyone can agree on, no matter how brutal it gets. (I will probably see Salo once in my life, just to get it over with. Performance may be brutal, but I'll likely see it again.) And now, an explanation. I just said I'm a fan of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. "Wait. An asexual likes a Russ Meyer? Isn't that a paradox?" Well, not really. See, the truth of it is that, for me, Beyond is a strong and fun movie because it is a satire, working almost wholly as a parody of perversion and I take my critiques of this insanity wherever I can. If that isn't enough of an explanation for all of you here, just repeat this maxim to yourself, "People are crazy."

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Salo makes Dogtooth look like The Blind Side....seriously, I've never seen anything as filthy and disturbing as Salo. It's the only movie I felt morally ashamed after seeing...I wanted to drown myself in a tub of holy water after it!

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Is 120 Days of Sodom more disturbing than A Serbian Film? I have seen the latter and I can't stand the sexual violence portrayed in the movie.

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December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHouston Home Security

Salo is a masterpiece if we look at the acting, but the contents are far more disgusting and such things should be avoided... if u haven't watched this movie yet, don't watch it

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