The title of the book is 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Must. Not Could. Not Should. Must. These are films that, according to the people who collated the list, are required viewing for anyone who wishes to live a satisfactory and fulfilled life, cinematically at least. They are essential for making you a complete person. Presumably this is because these films will impart some kind of life-affirming information, or perhaps they have some noteworthy impact upon modern cinema; a legacy to earn them a place in the annals of movie history. Or maybe, just maybe, the makers of the list are just fucking with us all, imparting some sadistic punishment for daring to think that watching far too many films results in anything other than a waste of time and a flabby midriff.
Salo has something of a reputation amongst the film world, enough for it to top my recent list of the movies on the 1001 list that I’m least looking forward to watching, based purely on a handful of screenshots and a couple of other bloggers complaining about it. It turns out that my fears were justified, although my extreme apprehension may have lessened the horrific impact this film may have otherwise had on me, as whilst it was bad – enough to force me to look away on several occasions to prevent myself from vomiting – it didn’t quite plumb the depths of depravity as deeply as I’d expected.
So what is this film? Well, the central plot, as much as there is one, sees four aristocratic men known only as the Duke, the Bishop, the President and the Magistrate, along with their female counterparts, recruiting some soldier-types and hand-picking eighteen virginal youths to be held against their will in a house in the countryside. During their stay the children will be subdued to as much physical, mental and sexual degradation and torture as the adults deem fit, as the ensuing discomfort and anguish seems the method by which the adults achieve optimum sexual excitement. What kind of acts are we talking about here? Well, as the film progresses they escalate, beginning with your average forced hand-jobs, being forced to walk around naked and pretending to be dogs – complete with walking on all fours, being led with a collar and leash and eating without using your hands. Next of course there’s rape – usually anally – and some acts I felt would be best described via stick figure diagrams:
Afterwards one unfortunate victim was force fed cake filled with nails, and then a huge vat of excrement, otherwise known as dinner, was shared by the entire company. In case you couldn’t guess, this was where I became really nauseous, as the effects used were rather realistic. After this chapter – delightfully titled Circle of Shit, comes the film’s final segment, which came as something of a relief despite being called Circle of Blood. Alas, this segment brought with it something I cannot tolerate on film; and that is mutilation, specifically of the eyes and tongue, both of which are witnessed here horrifically.
I mentioned earlier that the film wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe, and I think my reasoning for this could be that, in a certain light, much of what occurs is darkly – very, very darkly – comedic, assuming one has a twisted and evil sense of humour, which at times I have been known to have. There’s something oddly humourous about the juxtaposition of the aristocracy being aroused by having someone urinate on their face, or when one, after witnessing a futile attempt from a captive to pleasure his master, utters the line below:
And by the time the men are in drag, about to get married, whilst the priest is being fondled from behind during the service, well by that time we’ve seen so many horrors that even the basest levels of humour – a man with a moustache wearing a dress – can rarely fail to raise a smile. This isn’t anything I feel happy laughing about, in fact this mirth came with a heavy helping of shame, yet I tittered nonetheless, and that cannot be ignored. The sheer insanity of some of the dialogue also provided a welcome relief from the horrors on screen, featuring such delights as, after his first male victim recedes away at the prospect of sex, the priest utters forlornly “There are a thousand occasions when one does not desire a woman’s anus,” and when a girl seems less than enthralled at the prospect of eating a man’s defecation, a woman declares “It’s a unbelievable that a girl could behave like this in front of such a delicacy.” Alas, it’s quotes like these that made me annoyed the film is subtitled, as it meant I had to keep focussed on the screen in order to catch these gems.
The film is also beautifully shot and, generally speaking, rather well made, with thoroughly committed performances from all involved – except for the occasional scene where the hilarity of the situation reduced some extras to uncharacteristic laughter. The fact that such physical and emotional reactions could be drawn from the viewer show that the intention of the film makers was achieved with great success, and the sheer artwork of the imagery only enhanced the vulgarity it was depicting. The opening is a masterwork in creating a false sense of security – a plain off-white background with simple text listing the credits, whilst some easy-listening music plays gently in the background. If you don’t know the reputation of this film, it’ll be something of a shock, I assure you.
This does not mean by any reckoning that I enjoyed watching this film. Far from it, in fact, and it’s rating of Choose Life was all but certain even before the disc had been inserted into my DVD player. No, I did not like this film, and even if you removed all the depravity you’d still be left with a largely plot-less affair that celebrates and revels in the upper classes believing themselves able to own and demean others purely because they feel they deserve it, and not only that but it actually lets them get away with it too. Add to that a seemingly endless supply of stories and anecdotes regarding the younger lives of the women, all of which made me feel like Bruce McGill in Lincoln, becoming increasing agitated at the president’s inexhaustible stock of tales and parables. There isn’t a single scene within the film that doesn’t repulse me. From the opening – four soldiers barge into a meeting of four aristocratic girls – the daughters of the captors, it turns out – and one spits forcefully into a girl’s face, before carting them off to be married to each other’s fathers – one girl is forced to marry her own uncle. Later, we learn that of the children taken captive, one is the son of a judge, whom one of the men has been waiting to deflower for two years now. Another, a girl this time, was kidnapped by bribing the nuns taking care of her, whilst another’s mother “fell into the river and drowned” attempting to protect her child. This unfortunate soul probably suffers the most of all the captives, as she is the first to be chosen for the Bush Tucker Trial of poop-eating, after a story about a woman’s mother causes her to break down in tears, at which point the Duke exclaims that “This howling is the most exciting thing I have ever heard.” You know what? I don’t want to think about this film any more. It’s position on the 1001 List is the only credit it should have to its name, and that’s just so people like me could warn you from ever setting eyes upon it.
Choose life – never, ever stop choosing life – 1/10