Bad Faith in Bad Film

Bad Faith in Bad Film


Forms of Complicity and their Gendered Implications

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom ends, and you wonder what you’ve just partaken in. In “outlaw cinema,” or otherwise banned or unpalatable films in the canon, the active and consensual participation implicates the moviegoer in the film’s crimes. An accomplice, by definition, is “a person who helps someone else to commit a crime or to do something morally wrong.”1 Outlaw cinema, to an extent, asks the question of our accompliceship and complacency in watching these films at all. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film, which falls under this cinematic genre, implicates the voyeur in the unfathomable throughout a scarring 120 days at the Italian libertines’ palazzo. In this essay, our own position as accomplice goes pre-acknowledged. More fascinating, however, is the appearance of surrogate “complacents” within the films themselves, such as Pasolini’s women artists and storytellers. To what extent do these women have agency in their onlooking, and how do they convey this to the viewer? 

In films previously outlawed or banned, the participation of an audience already comes as a transgression: to the governing bodies which deem the film unacceptable to begin with, and to those who the film’s transgressions could offend. Pasolini’s “art horror” piece depicts Italy under fascism, the palazzo serving as a representational microcosm of human torture and absolute rule for a broader political state. Paul Corner characterizes Italian fascism by a tangential form of complicity, coining it “popular participation,” or the communal agreement to achieve a shared goal.2 In both Corner and Pasolini’s interpretations, fascism is highly organized and structuralized, as evidenced with the selection process for yet-unknown devious deeds. The camera pans wide, to show rows of perfectly organized boys ripe for the libertines’ choosing.3 The nudity shown here in these first scenes is vulnerable and pubescent. The biological difference seems to serve as basis for separation of the sexes. The girls’ selection process is already distinct, taking place in a seated and rather academic environment. However, the subjects of fascism are equalized in their torture, complacent in a loss of their free will at the hands of the libertines, the storytellers, and the audience. 

The difference in treatment of men and women is the basis for famed-feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s text, The Second Sex. According to Beauvoir, and Oxford researcher Filipa Melo Lopes’s analysis, women other themselves from men in self-alienation, which ascribes to and reinforces the gendered power structures already at play.  Famously, Beauvoir is quotes in saying, “one is not born but rather becomes [a] woman.”4 In doing so, the feminine acts in what she famously called “bad faith,” a question of authenticity, tangential to the Existential philosophical movement of late twentieth century Paris. As the libertines’ gendered selection process reinstates, “the man who sets the woman up as an Other will thus find her in a deep complicity.”5 In its essence, Pasolini’s is a film regarding power: how it acts in a completely redesigned way under the harsh regime of the libertines and Italy’s fascism. In a way, the beginning of this film equates both the boys and girls in their absolute lack of power. Therefore, this essay will look at the function of gender and complicity in a status of equality in power: that of the aggressor. According to Beauvoir’s analysis, the female storytellers within the libertines’ palazzo framework operate within the confines of their own gender while still enacting damage and remaining complicit in the larger crimes against humanity in play. 

For the first boy, Sergio, a girl is used to lure him into their trap. A matroness is used to present the young females to the libertines, displaying her nudity and noting “a delicious little ass” and “a pair of breasts to revive a dying man.”6 Most notably, the four male libertines are mirrored by four female counterparts, who go on to tell inciting stories to “stir the imagination.”7 The first storyteller, decorated elaborately in pearls, admires her own femininity in the mirror, and descends the stairs to the tune of the piano in an elegant white gown. From there, Signora Vaccari goes on to tell a story of her childhood of sexual abuse at the hands of a Prof. Gentile. Her lyrical Italian serves as the backdrop for a scene of suspense, as the audience anticipates her story to incite and regenerate sexual violence. As one boy is grabbed by a libertine, the female piano player is shown shooting a glance in his direction.

What does it mean for these women to parttake and incite such sexual violence towards minors? Is Signora Vaccari’s complicity in such crimes lessened in knowing she suffered from sexual abuse herself? While Salò goes on to show intense scenes of rape and sodomy at the hands of the libertines, Signora merely provides a lesson during dinner on how to hold “it,” or a man’s penis, and she brings one of the females to orgasm, declaring her a “woman.” Her complicity in fascism takes the form of psychological crimes rather than physical, and can be easily justified or excused as such without the gore of the physical. Through her ballads, the audience learns of her own ruined childhood, becoming a prostitute at the age of nine and being sexualized as an “animal” for a different libertine in her youth.8 A complicity of Sra. Vaccari’s elicits a certain level of compassion, especially in a contemporary society where the suffering of women is acknowledged to be a direct result of the gender inequalities reinforced in familial and patriarchal structures. 

Pasolini offers a more complex view of such issues. The house follows distinct rules under the instruction of the libertines, where traditional heterosexual gender roles are ignored or even reversed in bizarre twists on traditional matrimony. It’s hard to believe that women, or anyone for that matter, could act in Beauvoir’s “bad faith” in a faithless and lawless environment. Still, Pasolini offers two distinct looks at femininity within scenes of the “Orgy Room,” with the abused fully naked and the storytellers highly representative of a constructed feminine ideal. Suggesting that femininity is something to be “performed,” both Vaccarri and Signora Maggi are shown preparing for stories in  large mirrors, applying lipstick and reveling in their own feminine allure, lavish gowns and updos serving to play the part.9 By being shown as beautiful, both Vaccari and Maggi can be pardoned and removed from their stories, as Pasolini starkly contrasts these theatrical scenes from the horror and disgust of feces and assholes. The children transform from “innocents” to “whores” with the help of the storytellers, whom the audience can presume already underwent the same transition in their own childhoods. Sra. Maggi, the audience learns, even went so far as to kill her own mother in the name of her sexual liberation and her life in service of the libertines. Yet, the audience still yearns to pardon them in their beauty and individual pain characteristic of life as a woman in the patriarchy. Their complicity hides behind the mask of femininity, as Beauvoir would deem in bad faith and stark contrast to their male counterparts. Towards Salò’s end, three of the libertines echo the previous mirror scenes and dress in drag for a series of faux marriages, once again suggesting gender presentation as a social and fluid construct. The mask of femininity is free for their use, without any of the constraints of true womanhood. Outside of Salò, storytellers face abuse and early prostitution. In Salò, all genders are treated (and mistreated) equally. 

In discussing The Second Sex’s feminism, the division of labor naturally emerges as a key talking point in the distinction of the sexes. As Lori Marso’s text “Perverse Protests: Simone de Beauvoir on Pleasure, Danger, Resistance, and Female Violence in Film” illustrates, the acts of “cooking, smiling, and fucking” constitute both monetary and cultural capital within the household and greater framework of contemporary society. Marso utilizes three separate films—Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac—to illustrate the three activities within filmmaking. Film, as cultural artifact, can illuminate the frustrations with the female status which Beauvoir’s body of work also takes aim. While Salò creates and cultivates its own cinematic universe within the confines of the palazzo, these films and texts work to form a new genre of women’s literature and transgressive women in film. Storytelling can be added to cooking, smiling, and fucking as the list of activities which render women complicit, accountable, and in “bad faith” of their own feminine position. 

One example of a complicated and complicit female storyteller comes in Leni Riefenstahl, the infamous German filmmaker responsible for Nazi propaganda films like Triumph of the Will. Long before her 1934 documentary for the Third Reich, Riefenstahl seemingly triumphed over all potential hurdles to command a successful career for herself, and quickly. She declared she would dance, so she did. To be a star in mountaineer films, she became one—and one of the first female climbers in history. She then took control behind the camera to work for Hitler in a stunning series of propaganda films. The visual beauty of Triumph complicates the evil accomplished to “incite” anti-semetic and genocidal violence during Hitler’s time as führer. The same could be said of Riefenstahl’s beauty herself, as both Adolf and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels are cited as expressing her physicality and attractiveness. Surely, according to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, her femininity played to her advantage both materially and metaphysically in her ascent to fame. As quoted in the book: 

[W]omen are willing accomplices to their masters because they stand to profit from the benefits they are guaranteed. (…) they do not hesitate to radically sacrifice their autonomy as human beings; they stifle all thinking, all critical judgment, all spontaneity; they parrot conventional wisdom, they identify with the ideal imposed on them by the male code; in their hearts, and even on their faces, all sincerity is dead. (…) Their vain arrogance, their radical incapability, their stubborn ignorance, turn them into the most useless beings, the most idiotic that the human species has ever produced.10

Beauvoir is harsh, and speaks from a time since Riefenstahl’s filmmaking and the Third Reich. If Leni were to respond—as she did to similar stipulations in the documentary film on her life, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl—she would defend herself and her films as “artistic” and claim she “didn’t want to lose her will and freedom.”11 To the latter point, it’s important to distinguish Beauvoir’s above passage in speaking of bourgeois or upper class women. The “male code” echoes the structure of the libertines, within which the storytellers were not afraid to perform their femininity and trauma in return for protection of their lives, financial stability, and fine dresses. Once status is already achieved (here, in a class sense), complicity is easily feigned and forgivable. For the white, beautiful, bourgeois women of Hitler’s Germany and Pasolini’s Salò, the benefit they stood to gain by working within these power structures outweighs any potential freedom of a liberated sexuality, or dissent into the unknown. 

Refinstahl inadvertently acts in bad faith by claiming the loss of her “free will” to be at risk. She serves her free will on a platter, opting to play the “feminine innocence” card rather than owning up to her career moves as she did in the past.12 In her review of Riefenstahl, “The Feminazi Mystique,” feminist author bell hooks cites Leni’s past as a dancer and performer towards her capacity for a “subordinated femininity” in spite of and contrasting to her talent as a “producer of culture.”[Ibid.] Over and over in Müller’s documentary, Riefenstahl is adamant that she could not see past her art in making the propaganda films. Insistent upon the fact that book burnings and civil unrest were not made known to her, Leni rests on her intense focus as a creator and—less explicitly—her subordinate status as a woman to plead innocence in her projects. Once again, the beauty of her craft and her image serve as deflectors for complicity in crimes. The storytellers of Pasolini’s Salò could be seen as artists themselves too, constantly in song and rarely functioning outside the performance. 

Within the storytelling scenes of Salò, the audience catches glimpses of the feminine break. Steady camerawork focusing on the theatricality of the Signora’s traumatic song and dance are a handful of times interrupted by a shot of the piano player, also a woman. These sharp cuts take the audience out of the story for a split second and into the voyeur seat once again. We, like the piano player, are watching the events unfold and realizing our own complicity in the web of trauma. The piano player, even more so, is leading the tune which incites the physical and emotional destruction of these “weak chained creatures destined for our pleasure.”13 In spirit of the paper, and a modern twenty-first century feminist perspective, the same descriptor could be applied to the plight of women, as Marso and hooks would agree. Beauvoir, in writing, embarks on the fringe and less-agreed-upon perspective that women chain themselves to this patriarchal system, reaping potential rewards at the expense of other such creatures. 

While Beauvoir importantly discusses the female Othering, bell hooks is of the opinion that Riefenstahl, in order to find success, othered herself into man’s equal. Thus, Leni alienates herself not only from her own integral identity as a woman, but from all other women of any race, background, or ethnicity. hooks writes: “Leni Riefenstahl’s adoration and perpetuation of patriarchy, and her complete symbolic murder of all women artists (with whom she establishes no bonds or allegiances), allowed her to be the woman who stood alone among men—and, more importantly, the woman who escaped the punishment of men.”14 Leni escapes Hitler’s Germany, the storytellers escape the libertines both by aiding and abetting their abusers. This complicity with their sex bleeds into the complicity of their crimes. In “becoming woman,” as Beauvoir would say, Leni and the libertines opt into societal systems which suppress parts of themselves but enable them to oppress others.15 The art of femininity and storytelling serves as a blinder to the atrocities around them, as the women are unable to see past their mirrors or their “artistic vision.” 16

In one stunningly subtle shot of Pasolini’s film, the piano player is shown, like the other women storytellers, in front of a mirror. However, instead of admiring herself and her looks, the audience sees her double in the mirror without eye contact. Instead, she stares out at the palazzo scene while playing her music.17 Her art can’t save her, as the piano teacher willingly subjects herself to the libertines’ violence which she does not, at least physically, partake in. At times, she looks over as a young boy is snatched from a libertine, or she hands the chosen children their blue ribbons as to indicate their awaited death.18 Within the palazzo and Nazi Germany, we can revisit such works to ask: How did this woman not see the atrocities around her? Why did she not speak up, or act differently?

As if responding to a larger voyeur culture in general, Pasolini answers the question. What happens to those complicit in crimes, who elect not to remain blind? How does gendered positioning play a role in the answer? Leni Riefenstahl recalls Goebbels once saying to her, since kept in a diary, “if you were a man and not a woman, I’d throw you down the stairs.”19 Here, Leni’s gender spares her from any external, physical punishment. The great unknown and “ambiguity” which Beauvoir cites as the only space for women’s liberation is threatened in this instance towards Leni, in the space outside the known feminine mystique and innocence. 

Pasolini’s piano player does not wait for an outside actor to throw her down stairs, as she herself instead crawls out of a window. This striking ending to the adult woman’s mini-plot sheds light on the intricacies of the voyeur, the pain which comes with keeping eyes open to abuse and one’s own complicit nature. The scene occurs quietly and without impact.20 The violence reaches its climax in the “Circle of Blood” as a clear indication of the libertines’ sexual enjoyment to be gained in the viewing of such slaughter. By stark contrast, a quiet complicity kills the piano player. Her acts of looking throughout the film declare her awareness, even breaking out into sporadic French song and dance alongside Sra. Viccarri in a last ditch act of defiance.21 Her dismal end could unexpectedly offer a glimmer of hope for the scorned Beauvoirian reader. As she’s complicit in the crimes of others, she’s complicit in her own destruction as well, which in its own way denotes and grants a new type of freedom. 

In her making of Triumph of the Will, Leni declares that “freedom and peace” were the film’s only messages. If the palazzo could be seen as a smaller-scale Nazi Germany, under a different European fascist regime, then that same freedom and peace could be said of the female storytellers as well. There is peace to be found in complicity, in acting feminine in ignorance of human plights. According to Beauvoir, this complicity is a choice and places females in an auto-subordination, although this complicity could be seen in levels. From the storytellers to the young females abused to Riefenstahl, the acting in “bad faith” can come from different places and different reasons. Even the intellectualizing of such complicity can be interpreted as a masculine realm. The libertines debate Baudelaire and Nietzche while the women take joy in their personal pain, as evidenced in their elaborate narratives.22 When thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and even Leni Riefenstahl—to an extent—emerge as voices in the literary and cinematic arts, they choose to stand in their own complicity or implicate us as their accomplices, aware of the full extent of patriarchal systems and the way their art can either liberate or implicate us in the message.

  1. Accomplice | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary.
  2. Paul Corner, “Collaboration, Complicity, and Evasion Under Italian Fascism,” in A. Lüdtke, ed., Everyday Life in Mass Dictatorship. Mass Dictatorship in the Twentieth Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 75.
  3. Pier Paolo Pasolini, dir., Salò, or, the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), 00:12:11.
  4. Simone de Beauvoir and H. M. Parshley, The Second Sex, (David Campbell Publishers, 1993), 283.
  5. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 10.
  6. Pasolini, 00:15:58.
  7. Pasolini, 00:22:00.
  8. Pasolini, 00:49:46.
  9. Pasolini, 00:58:00.
  10. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 663.
  11. Ray Müller, “The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl [Documentary 1993],” YouTube, June 1, 2021, 00:46:00.
  12. bell hooks, “The Feminazi Mystique,” Transition, no. 73 (1997): 159,
  13. Pasolini, 00:21:15.
  14. hooks, “The Feminazi Mystique,” 162.
  15. Beauvoir, 301.
  16. hooks, “The Feminazi Mystique,” 160.
  17. Pasolini, 01:32:50.
  18. Pasolini, 01:41:38.
  19. Müller, 01:03:00.
  20. Pasolini, 01:48:26.
  21. Pasolini, 01:31:33.
  22. Pasolini, 00:48:30.
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