The word “perversion” refers to sexual practices outside of heterosexual, genital centred intercourse. By designating certain acts as outside of societal norms, they become deviant, inherently “bad”. Even today, artists who explore “perverse” sexual practices run the risk of repression and censorship (certainly in cinema this has always been the case). The works of one artist in particular have been subject to society’s repressive tactics for over 200 years: those of the Marquis de Sade. This discomfort with Sade the writer can be seen in representations of Sade the man. Whether a lovable rogue campily played by Geoffrey Rush (Quills, Phillip Kauffman, 2001) or a dashingly seductive figure portrayed by Daniel Auteuil (Sade, Benoît Jacquot, 2001), the cinema has never really got the Marquis de Sade quite right. He’s either diluted or hammy, a joke or a monster – more vaudeville than evil.
A man condemned in his own day for his sexual practices and lascivious writings, after his death he was crowned patron saint of the Surrealists, but was also requisite bedside reading for many a serial killer. For central to Sade’s revelling in perversion and crime is a well-developed, yet totally radical, philosophy – a philosophy equating vice and perversion with freedom of will and experimentation. This freedom, however, was selfish and destructive – we must seek only to satisfy ourselves, even if it means depriving the freedom of others. In fact, this is the main thrust of Sade’s thought – eroticism is equated with violation, of both societal taboos and other bodies. As Sade writes: “Crime is the soul of lust. What would pleasure be if it were not accompanied by crime? It is not the object of debauchery that excites us, rather the idea of evil” (1). Sex is a completely selfish act, with the sexual partner viewed as nothing more than a mass of flesh which aids orgasm (lack of consent only adds to the excitement) – instead, pleasure is something we gain for ourselves through action and, more importantly, through the thoughts that are triggered by the act.
This is rather pertinent to film, as it is a medium through which spectators can take pleasure for themselves, with no regard for the discomfort of those onscreen – in fact, part of the pleasure of viewing films is to see people in agony as well as in ecstasy (2). Watching a film is a selfish exercise – we are there for our own entertainment, taking joy in crime and violence and blatantly gawking at any actor we find attractive. Certainly, many critics have railed against the cinema’s objectification of the female form and the camera’s fixation on showing the bodies of women as either grossly sexualised or perpetually in danger.
In the last few years this focus on the body has led many filmmakers to transgress cinematic taboos, incorporating what many would term “pornographic” elements into more mainstream, albeit “arthouse”, cinema, for example: Romance (Catherine Breillat, 2000), Lies (Jang Sun-woo, 2000), Intimacy (Patrice Chereau, 2001), Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Thi, 2001), The Centre of the World (Wayne Wang, 2001), The Pornographer (Bertrand Bonello, 2002), and Ken Park (Larry Clark and Ed Lachman, 2002). These films deal almost exclusively with normative heterosexual relations – perhaps there is still tentativeness about incorporating pornographic imagery with more “marginal” practices. However, the two films banned in Australia – Baise-moi and Ken Park – were subject to banning partly because their portrayals of real sexual acts were depicted in a context outside that of a consenting heterosexual couple: in Baise-moi, real sex was used in a rape scene; and Ken Park has a scene of auto-erotic masturbation.
This fixation with exploring sexuality onscreen illustrates one of the most challenging but enduring elements of cinematic representation: that there is an inherent attraction to what society labels as “bad” and “perverse”. Sade confronted this attraction unflinchingly; his novels putting forward a way of thinking that was in direct opposition to the teachings of the society around him. In Sade, the notions of “virtue” and “vice” were completely reversed: while church and state extolled the rewards to be gained from a life of virtue, Sade instead portrayed this way of life as a curse, leading only to poverty and ruin – in fact, his first novel, Justine, was subtitled “The Misfortunes of Virtue”. In Sade, it is the path of vice that leads the way to sexual freedom and financial success, as seen in his novel Juliette (subtitled “The Prosperities of Vice”), wherein the titular character (who is Justine’s sister) leads a charmed life, gaining wealth and happiness through crime, murder and sexual promiscuity.
By confronting vice’s inherent appeal, and freeing himself from the societal constraints that restricted him from experimenting with carnal pleasure, Sade (within fiction) explored the possibilities, and limitations, of the body and the expression of a sexuality beyond genitality. By looking beyond so-called “normal” heterosexual intercourse, elements that are usually banished from sexual representation are incorporated: the use of all parts of the body; the exploration of bisexuality and group sex; the use of blasphemy, images of the abject (namely, death and filth) and other deliberately “scandalous” behaviours; and, most controversially, the incorporation of pain and violence.
This experimentation of Sade’s is still being explored within cinema. As cinema is a visual form, it is an appropriate medium with which to explore the body’s possibilities. Most emblematic of this exploration is the investigation of sadistic and masochistic sexualities, as they both involve the linking of sexuality with violence and polymorphous perversity, albeit in different ways. In the masochistic situation, the subject is consenting to pain, with their “torturer” there to provide pleasure (for example In The Realm of the Senses [Nagisa Oshima, 1976], The Piano Teacher [Michael Haneke, 2001], Lies and Secretary [Steven Shainberg, 2002]). In contrast, within the sadistic situation consent is not given, with sexual acts portrayed not so much as sensual indulgences but as highly organised experiments (for example, Salò [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975], Faceless [Jess Franco, 1988], Audition [Takashi Miike, 2001]). However, when filmmakers do choose to traverse either of these areas, it usually provokes controversy and even occasional censorship – proof indeed that sadomasochistic themes and ideas are still contentious to this day.
Sade in the Cinema
It was Surrealist Luis Buñuel who first introduced Sade into the cinematic realm. In the 1930 film L’Âge d’or, Buñuel chose to end his tale of erotic passion with a scene taken from Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom. The scene takes place after the male protagonist has been betrayed by the woman he loves – that is, normal, heterosexual romance has failed. In fact, as the intertitles state, it is at “that moment” of betrayal that “the survivors of the Chateau de Selliny were coming out, to go back to Paris”. The intertitles further explain that: “Four well known and utter scoundrels had locked themselves up in an impregnable castle for 120 days to celebrate the most brutal of orgies”. Now preparing to leave their castle, the four “fiends” who have “no law but their depravity… no God, no principles, and no religion” are set to emerge from the door into the outside world. A shot of the castle door is interrupted as an intertitle prepares the viewer for the entrance of the Duke of Blangis – “the leader and chief instigator” of this criminal orgy.
And so the scene is set for one of the most shocking and blasphemous visual gags ever committed to celluloid. For when the castle door opens, out steps Jesus Christ! This scene is deliberately shocking, as Buñuel, following Sade’s example, uses blasphemy because of its shocking effect on other people (Sade and Buñuel are both atheists). Buñuel is attacking the outdated institution of organised religion, which is impotent when faced with the human instinct for lust and cruelty.
Another example of his criticism of the church occurs earlier in the film, where four archbishops sitting on the shore become skeletons in robes. They are shown as lacking flesh, meaning, in Sadean terms, that they are no longer of any use. In Sade, other people are seen as nothing but flesh, to be used for our own satisfaction – a bunch of skeletons are just dead matter waiting to be discarded (and later in the film the protagonist actually does discard an archbishop – out of a window!). This shot is juxtaposed with the people surrounding the skeletal archbishops being startled by the sound of a man and a woman cavorting in the mud – the restrictive and outmoded doctrine of the church is brought face to face with the pure animal lust of the two protagonists. The man and woman cannot resist giving in to their urges, and fall to the ground and roll in the mud. That a love scene is taking place on the dirty ground is an appropriately Sadean setting, with eroticism being linked with dirt, filth and the base matter of the earth. This idea is taken to a surreal extreme when the two lovers are forced apart, and the man (played by Gaston Modot) visualises his lover (Lya Lys) not reclining sexily on a bed, but sitting on a toilet!
This Sadean connection of sex and excrement has most (in)famously been depicted in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 adaptation of The 120 Days of Sodom, entitled Salò. The film, still banned in Australia, has a sequence where all the characters partake in a “banquet of shit”. This banquet is just one of the many sadomasochistic games that four men force their 16 young prisoners to participate in – for the men, the banquet is an indulgence in filth and excess, but for the prisoners it is a frightful torture. This episode is taken directly from Sade’s novel, but the film is set not in 18th century France but Fascist Italy, at the end of World War Two. The town of Salò was the site of a puppet government set up at the end of the war, where soldiers tortured and massacred over 72,000 innocent men, women and children. By setting the film at this time and place, Pasolini illustrated that Sade’s fantasies had in fact become a horrifying reality.
And, as with all of Sade’s tales of sexual experimentation, sex games soon escalate to incorporate violence, and, inevitably, murder. This escalation is expressed by Pasolini through the division of the story into three different circles (a device taken from Dante’s Inferno) – The Circle of Madness, The Circle of Shit and The Circle of Blood. Each circle entails the transgression of a certain taboo. The Circle of Madness has the four men turning away from society and setting up their own rules and laws; in The Circle of Shit there is a revelling in all that is seen as “dirty” and abject; and in The Circle of Blood the four men enact, and watch, the torture and murder of their young captives – all for the sole purpose of sexual satisfaction.
Just as Pasolini took a Sade novel and transposed it onto the 20th century, several films made by exploitation filmmaker Jess Franco also use Sade’s novels as inspiration. Franco filmed Justine in 1968, Eugenie, The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (an adaptation of Philosophy in the Bedroom) in 1969, Eugenie de Sade (based on Sade’s short story Eugenie de Franval) in 1970, and Juliette in 1975. Unlike Pasolini’s film, which used Sade to illustrate human cruelty and depravity in unflinching and highly emetic terms, Franco’s brand of “Euro-trash” cinema utilises Sade to create a titillating effect. Franco updates Sade’s stories to the time in which they were made, transposing Sade to the generation of “free love”. As these films are low-budget exploitation films, they revel in the representations of sex – certainly with more edge than Hollywood fare, but still slightly diluted when compared to the original text (or Salò). However, other Franco films do show a fascination with depictions of torture, sadomasochism and the use of very explicit sex, such as Female Vampire (1973), Ilsa, The Wicked Warden (1977) and Bloody Moon (1980). The sheer volume of Franco’s output (the total has been approximated at 145 films since 1959) shows a compulsion for filmmaking that rivals Sade’s own compulsive need to write while locked up in prison.
The influence of Sadean philosophy can be seen in many works of horror and erotica. For a closer look at the Sadean influence, I will examine Mario Bava’s 1963 film The Whip and the Body (La Frusta e il Corpo).
“You always loved violence”
A classic by horror maestro Mario Bava, The Whip and the Body, could suitably be described as a Sadean love story. It is “Sadean” in that it details a sexual relationship wherein sexual activity between the couple does not revolve around genital intercourse. In fact, sexual activity is almost completely replaced by violent behaviour. Made in 1963, the film was ahead of its time, with its portrayal of a woman’s immersion into a world of sadomasochistic fantasy, four years before Buñuel’s own Belle de Jour. The film is set in a Gothic castle, the family home of the Menliff’s, whose eldest son, Kurt (charismatically played by Christopher Lee) has returned home to reclaim both his title and his ex-lover Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), who is now married to his brother, Christian (Tony Kendall).
Kurt’s return is not a welcome event – he had been banished from the family because of his “infamy”, and is responsible for the suicide of the servant’s daughter, Tanya, who killed herself with a dagger after Kurt abandoned her – a dagger which is still kept by Tanya’s mother, Georgia (Harriet White Medin), enclosed in glass and wreathed with roses. Kurt proceeds to upset everyone in the house – his father (Gustavo de Nardo) refuses to give back his title; he taunts his cousin Katya (Ida Galli) who is secretly in love with Christian; and, of course, he seeks out Nevenka, who seems to be afraid of him.
It is on the beach, as Nevenka looks out into the ocean and lazily toys with her horse-whip, that Kurt appears before her, standing on the whip and jerking her to attention. The camera pans up Kurt’s body, and Nevenka’s fear dissolves into desire as they kiss. However, she quickly backs away and whips at him. Kurt turns the tables as he grabs the whip and forces Nevenka backwards onto a rock – he exclaims, “You haven’t changed” and then proceeds to whip Nevenka’s back, telling her “You always loved violence”.
That Kurt talks about Nevenka’s sexual tastes, and then fulfils them, contradicts usual sadistic behaviour, which is characterised by selfishness and complete disregard for the partner’s needs and satisfaction. In this way, The Whip and the Body is unique, in that Kurt comes across as a textbook sadist – he is held responsible for Tanya’s suicide, his own father refers to him as a “serpent”, claiming “you like to make others suffer” and, most obviously, he is shown flogging a woman rather mercilessly – yet, he is doing it for a partner who consents and enjoys such treatment. As Deleuze points out: “a genuine sadist could never tolerate a masochistic victim” (3). If Kurt were a sadist, that Nevenka’s experience of pleasure would severely limit his own.
Illustrating the complementary nature of the relationship, Bava shoots this scene from both points-of-view, showing us Kurt powerfully whipping down at the camera, while also relishing in close-ups of Nevenka’s back as her dress tears and red welts appear on her flesh. Despite the graphic depiction of the whipping, as they begin to kiss there is a cut to a shot of the whip on a rock as the tide rolls in and romantic music swells – and the two obviously begin to make love. In fact, the film, as well as having been subject to the censorship rules of the time (but was released in several butchered versions, nonetheless), seems uninterested in sexual intercourse, and instead focuses solely on the violence that results from the liaison between Kurt and Nevenka.
It is after this episode that Kurt returns to the home, claiming that Nevenka is missing. As the family search the grounds, Kurt is left alone in his room. A disembodied voice calls his name, wind billows in through his window, and, as he closes it, his curtain seems to swallow him and he emerges with a dagger – the same dagger that claimed Tanya’s life – sticking out from his neck. And so the story follows a Sadean trajectory as sex escalates to death.
As the story transpires, it is soon revealed that it is Nevenka who is Kurt’s murderer. Indeed, Kurt was speaking the truth when he said that Nevenka “loved violence” – it seems that Kurt’s murder was the climax of their tryst. This shows Nevenka to be more sadistic than Kurt ever was. After Kurt’s death, Nevenka slips into a fantasy world, believing that Kurt has returned from the dead. We begin to see the world from Nevenka’s point of view, its artificiality highlighted by Bava’s trademark lighting scheme, with the castle seemingly filled with pools of red, blue, yellow and green light.
The colour red, in particular, has many connotations. It is this colour that symbolises love and passion – but it is also the colour of blood, and of the welts that the whip makes on Nevenka’s back. Red is also the colour of the roses that feature prominently throughout the narrative. The rose is an appropriate metaphor for the relationship between Nevenka and Kurt – the flower itself is beautiful, a symbol of true love, but the thorns are sharp and painful.
The film’s two motifs, the rose and the whip, can be further coded as traditionally masculine (whip) and feminine (rose). The whip, which will be discussed later, is phallic in the sense that it is long, stiff, and used as a weapon, causing wounds – or what could be seen as “invaginations” – to appear on the skin. The knife, the other weapon wielded in the film, is also a traditional phallic symbol. It is seen in the opening shots, standing upright on display and surrounded by roses. And due to his being stabbed by this knife, when Kurt visits Nevenka after his death, he appears with a white bandage, which sports a bloodstain that, as Tim Lucas points out (4), is shaped like a rose.
Therefore, the rose motif, at once beautiful and romantic but also associated with blood and wounds, is used to “mark” Kurt as a transgressor – just as Nevenka is also “marked” by the welts from her whippings. And, just as a welt can be read as an “invagination” on the skin, the flower of the rose, with its apertures and folds, also has vaginal connotations. The association of femininity with wounds may be troublesome, but the masculine and feminine symbols are both ultimately symbols of violence – as mentioned before, Bava does not show as much interest in the sexual as he does in the violent – even the rose, with its thorns, has the means to harm (and the murderer is revealed to be a female). Both genders are driven by violent instincts.
When Nevenka visits the family chapel and kneels to pray, she carries with her a rose and holds it to her nose, the smell of which summons memories of her dalliance with Kurt. In voiceover we hear Kurt repeating what he had said to Nevenka on the beach, and hear the sound of whips. For Nevenka the whip is a fetish object – she seems unable to be aroused without it. The whip is seen, and heard, repeatedly: the doorknobs of the castle are the same shape as Nevenka’s whip, and when alone she is lured by the sound of whips, and as she walks she begins to gasp more sensually and looks increasingly overcome and dizzy – even the sound of a branch being blown in and out of a window has the sound of a whip.
The whip, of course, is one of the staple accoutrements of sadomasochism, an implement designed to cause pain, but which is transformed into an instrument of pleasure. For Sade, and for sadomasochists in general, pain and pleasure are not polar opposites but two powerful stimulants working to satisfy the libido. Sade himself claimed:
…it is purely a question of exposing our nervous system to the most violent possible shock; now, there is no doubt that we are much more keenly affected by pain than by pleasure: the reverberations that result in us when the sensation of pain is produced in others will essentially be of a more vigorous character… (5)
Pain is felt more intensely than pleasure, therefore Sade’s libertines, numbed by their life of excess, incorporate pain in order to achieve heightened sensations. When not being visited by Kurt, Nevenka is always still, almost blank, as if completely bored with her life of “dainty” activities such as playing the piano and embroidery. It is the presence of Kurt, and his whip, that excites both her fear and her desire. Nevenka is always initially afraid of Kurt and begs him to leave, but then shows her surrender by biting either her own hand or Kurt’s.
As these appearances of Kurt are from Nevenka’s imagination, so for most of the film the Kurt that we see is actually a part of Nevenka. Bava highlights how Nevenka and Kurt are bound to each other in several scenes: during the two whippings that take place in the film, Bava incorporates both of their points-of-view; while Nevenka caresses herself in front of the mirror, Kurt appears behind her, as he is, in a sense, a “reflection” of her; and when Nevenka again tries to stab Kurt with the knife, since he is not actually there she stabs herself instead, and as she lays dying she remarks that she has “killed him again, this time for good”. The desire to have pain inflicted upon her, and to inflict pain upon others (she murders Kurt, as well as his father) are both within her – just as Sade’s libertines both inflict and endure pain, in pursuit of the ultimate pleasure.
As aforementioned, it is this linking of pain with pleasure that is still controversial to this day, just as it was in Sade’s time. However, there has been a desire to explore this connection in filmic form almost from its beginnings (L’Âge d’or was made in 1930). This investigation continues to this day, illustrating the relevance and potency of Sade’s works. All filmmakers working in this area owe a debt to Sade, one of the first to explore all aspects of sexuality, in an uncompromising and deliberately confrontational manner.
- Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings, eds Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver, Grove Press, New York, 1987, p. 28
- Of course, the opposite could also be argued. While for years many theorists such as Laura Mulvey have highlighted the sadistic nature of film viewing, recent theory has highlighted the masochistic pleasures gained from watching. When viewing a film we are in a passive state, our emotions and responses controlled by what we see. By sitting down in the theatre, or in front of a television, we are surrendering to both the pleasures and the tortures that await us. For further discussion of the masochistic response to film viewing, see Steven Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993.
- Gilles Deleuze, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, Zone Books, New York, 1989, p. 40
- From Tim Lucas’ commentary on the DVD of The Whip and the Body, released in 2001 through VCI Entertainment.
- Marquis de Sade, Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings, eds Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver, Grove Press, New York, 1965, p. 252