Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 Salò and Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 Eyes Wide Shut were separated by a quarter-century, but share basic structure, themes and strategies that each director use to condemn consumerism.
Both Pasolini and Kubrick died shortly before their films’ release. As Alan Bacchus, writing for Daily Film Dose, notes, “The formal compositions and classical Roman art direction match well together. Pasolini’s style even resembles Stanley Kubrick with his symmetrical compositions and use of the female nude body as background art decoration. The orgy rituals are also evident in Eyes Wide Shut.”
Both films share a dreamlike narrative, transporting audiences instantly from the realm of reality to the realm of erotic fantasy. Although Salò initially resembles a war film and Eyes Wide Shut a relationship drama, they both quickly move down the Yellow Brick Road of fantasy, bringing us to the castle (Salò) and the mansion (Eyes Wide Shut). Each film strips away any illusions of egalitarianism, and uses sex to expose the power imbalances between the rich and the poor, and the male and the female.
Capitalist consumerism is the target of both films. They use prostitution and sexual objectification literalize the spiritual objectification that consumerism creates. Pasolini described dissatisfaction with politics of all sorts, saying “all those who consider themselves either Marxists or Communists are consumerists, too,” but compared consumerism to fascism. “I’ll give you an example: fascism has tried for twenty years to eliminate dialects and it didn’t succeed. Consumerism, which, on the contrary, pretends to be safeguarding dialects, is destroying them.”
Thus, Pasolini chose a fascist setting for his complaint against consumerism — a castle in late fascist Italy. Kubrick chose the ultimate consumerist setting for his complaint — the financial capital of the world, at Christmas.
Each film’s sadomasochism is initially titillating, but their treatments of sex becomes more and more grotesque as the narrative continues and the elite exert their control. Early on, Salò’s cabal of power lightly flirt with their captives and come up with a list of rules not too unlike something you’d find from a Barnes & Noble section. Eyes Wide Shut famously opens with Nicole Kidman nude, in front of a mirror, and includes an extended dialogue between Kidman and Tom Cruise in their underwear.
Inside the elites’ lair, the nudity increases and the material becomes more fetishized. However, both Pasolini and Kubrick pull back at this point. The sexual content becomes more cold, and distant. They each broaden their shots to avoid intimacy with the characters. They want to show us how objectification feels from the object’s point of view. The last thing they want to do is allow the viewer to identify with the subject too strongly. At each film’s apogee, the content is the most “hardcore,” but also the least pornographic. None of our protagonists — or viewers — achieve sexual release.
Salò and Eyes Wide Shut also leave us with a sense of helplessness in the face of consumerism. These is no escaping the advance of the culture of destruction. The boys in Salò who assist the men in their torture become something like kapos, and survive. Dr. Bill gives up his quest to rescue his friends from the punishment of the elite. He and his wife both survive consumerism by giving in – at the end of the film, they take their daughter Christmas shopping at the mall and resolve to “fuck.”
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.