Nobody ever said it would be easy, and after a run of what one might uncharitably term middlebrow sentimentality (or perhaps humanistic tales with a sense of moral responsibility), the Criterion Collection moves decisively towards showcasing films with a rather harder edge, of which this adaptation by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini of the Marquis de Sade is surely the most challenging. I’d seen this many years ago, and expected to not like it — and it is of course a nasty film in which many very vile things happen or are said, which can be extremely difficult to watch — but it’s also somewhat fascinating. It’s set almost entirely at an opulent country estate, at which stories are told by elderly society ladies while acts of degradation and depravity are committed by a cadre of four aristocrats/governmental figures (backed up by armed guards) upon a group of young men and women, all while one of the women accompanies on piano in a genteel manner. There’s a lot in the film that recalls the work of Michael Haneke (who is, as I’m sure I’ll one day post about, a director I consider among cinema’s most overrated). The final and most difficult passage of the film (entitled ‘Circle of Blood’) depicts various tortures being watched at a distance by the aristocrats through opera glasses in a manner that clearly implicates the film’s own audience, and yet it feels less overtly Do-You-See as similar Haneke strategies in films like Funny Games. The corruption of power is tied strongly in the film to the declining years of Mussolini’s rule in Fascist Italy, which perhaps gives it historical distance (like that final act, viewed through glasses), but also makes it a story about the interplay between the governed and the ruling classes. It is all too easy for someone on the left to imagine quotes like “It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of ‘the people’. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist” at a Tory party conference, and Pasolini must surely be channelling his own indignation at government here. Whatever it may represent, it still (necessarily so, perhaps) is a punishing watch, and not one that I would particularly rush to repeat any time soon.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini; Writers Pasolini and Sergio Citti (based on the novel Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage by the Marquis de Sade); Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Paolo Bonacelli, Aldo Valletti; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, May 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 4 January 2015).