Sweet Movie [DVD]
Director : Dusan Makavejev
Screenplay : Dusan Makavejev
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1974
Stars : Carole Laure (Miss Monde 1984), Pierre Clémenti (Potemkin Sailor), Anna Prucnal (Captain Anna Planeta), Sami Frey (El Macho), Jane Mallett (PDG / Chastity Belt Lady), Roy Callender (Jeremiah Muscle), John Vernon (Mr. Kapital), Otto Muehl (Member of Therapie-Komune)
Following the international critical success of WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), his subversive treatise on communism, Wilhelm Reich, and sexual freedom, Yugoslav provocateur Dusan Makavejev used his newfound infamy to produce Sweet Movie, one of the most challenging art-house shockers of the 1970s. Many of the critics who admired WR, itself a subversive challenge to traditional political and sexual mores, found Sweet Movie’s taboo-busting interplay of sexuality and excretion to be too much. Others praised it as a landmark, a stimulating film whose smashing of all conventional boundaries was central to its thesis about the necessity of complete liberation (it made the cover of Film Quarterly and was the cause célèbre at the Cannes Film Festival). According to Marsha Kinder, when it debuted uncut to an audience in Berkeley, California (when it later opened in New York, it had been pruned by about four minutes), the response was “uniformly passionate,” although those passions were divided: It was “attacked as an homage to Hitler, ridiculed as a 40-year-old’s wet dream, and celebrated as a brilliant work of revolutionary anarchy.”
The divisive reaction to Sweet Movie is telling: This is not a film about which you can have mixed feelings. You either love it or loathe it; you are either on its wavelength or you feel assaulted by it. I stand in the latter category, not because I was offended by the extreme nature of its visuals (I am, after all, a critic who reserves high praise for the likes of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo), but rather because I think the ideas behind it are garbage. I can muster respect for Makavejev’s daring and willingness to go to extremes in order to make his point, but I can’t find anything useful about the point he’s making. In fact, the disgusting nature of what happens on-screen during much of Sweet Movie is less a challenge to my worldview than it is confirmation that Makavejev is essentially shoveling what he’s showing.
Like WR, Sweet Movie dispenses with conventional narrative in favor of a collage-like effect of multiple narratives. Here, we have two main strands. The dominant narrative thread begins as a kind of smirking political comedy in which a young woman (Carole Laure) is crowned Miss World 1984. The beauty pageant requires that she be a virgin, which is verified on-stage by a world-renowned gynecologist who marvels at the perfection of her intact hymen. Her award for winning the pageant is marriage to Mr. Kapital (John Vernon, best remembered as Dean Wormer from Animal House), the world’s richest man and, as his name suggests, Makavejev’s one-dimensional parody of American capitalist excess. However, when it becomes clear on their wedding night that his sexual proclivities (such as his paranoid fear of STDs) are too much, Miss World is shipped off to Paris, literally in a suitcase.
In Paris, she first falls for a crooning singer/movie star (Sami Frey), and then falls in with a commune that is intended to represent the apex of sexual liberation. The parts are played by actual members of a Viennese commune started by performance artist and general anarchist Otto Muehl, whose Reich-derived ideas forbade monogamy, personal property, or anything else that might smack of patriarchal repression. As depicted in Sweet Movie, the commune’s ideal version of human existence involves a purposeful reversion to infantilism. A dinner party in the commune begins normally enough, but soon devolves into food fighting, self-induced vomiting, urination, and later a defecation contest, all of which is depicted in all its unsimulated grossness. At this point, Sweet Movie becomes more of a documentary about the commune’s antics, and the way in which Makavejev’s camera swerves now and again to find Miss World makes her seem all the more forgotten (her distressed look is real, as she eventually walked off the set because she was so disturbed by what was happening).
For Muehl and Makavejev, this may very well be the end-all-be-all of human existence, a true overthrowing of all repressive strictures. And, as an intellectual metaphor, it is an interesting concept. However, when reduced to simple visual terms, one cannot escape the mindless perversity of it all, a critique that Muehl would likely denounce as oppressive and anti-intellectual. And, after watching the scene in which a commune member writhes naked on a mattress urinating on himself while the other commune members smear him with feces and other assorted nastiness, I am more than happy to submit to such critiques. (Even Freud contended that a certain amount of repression is useful.) And, for those who argue that such bodily processes are inherently human, I would remind them that a certain level of rationality is also inherently human. We are, after all, the only beings on Earth capable of questioning our own existence.
A second narrative strand involves Captain Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal), a revolutionary prostitute who navigates an enormous ship down the waterways of Amsterdam. The ship, which is named “Survival” and boasts on its prow an enormous papier-mâché visage of Karl Marx, carries in its hull candy and a swinging bed of sugar. She picks up a young man (Pierre Clémenti) who wears the uniform of a sailor from the Battleship Potemkin, the famous Russian vessel that was involved in a failed uprising against the czar in 1905 and was the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s great film. She and the sailor become lovers, which allows Makavejev to indulge his constant desire to couple sex and politics. What it means exactly is never really clear, although the scene in which Captain Anna does a striptease in front of a group of young boys is by far the film’s most uncomfortable realization--the very essence of “icky.” However, this section of the film also contains a key to its meaning. As Anna and the sailor are having sex (again) in the bed of sugar (a scene that makes your mind wander to questions like, how do they get all those grains of sugar out of every crack and orifice of their bodies when they’re done?), Anna bites into him so hard that she draws blood. “No explanation?” she asks him, to which he replies, “Not everything needs an explanation.” Ahhh--the great art-house cop-out.
Intercut throughout both of these narrative is a third narrative strand composed entirely of scratchy black-and-white documentary footage of the Germany military disinterring the decomposed victims of the Katyn Forest Massacre, in which Soviet authorities ordered the execution of thousands of Polish citizens in 1940. The stark nature of these uncompromised images sits uneasily with the supposedly joyous celebration of sexual liberty throughout the rest of the film. One gets the feeling that Makavejev is attempting to create juxtaposition here--life vs. death, liberation vs. oppression, community vs. fascism, color vs. black-and-white--but the actual result is just another series of gross images that illustrate the depths to which people can lower themselves. This is not in any way meant to suggest that the moral depravity of slaughtering innocents is in any way similar to the physical depravity evidenced by Muehl and his commune, but rather that grotesquerie exists in many forms.
Not surprisingly, Sweet Movie is still banned in numerous countries and loathed by many who have seen it, which Makavejev likely wears as a badge of honor. Challenging visual taboos has its place in the arts, but the de facto elevation of a film (or a piece of music, or a painting, or a sculpture) just because some people deem it so troubling that it should be kept from sight is not confirmation of its worth. Makavejev is an intriguing filmmaker and a man of ideas who knows no fear when it comes to his art, and for that he should be praised. His ideas, however, taken to the extremes evidenced in Sweet Movie, strike me as ultimately pointless as political philosophy and are therefore a shabby excuse for the film’s visually assaulting nature.
|Sweet Movie Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD|
|Audio||English / French / Serbo-Croatian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||June 12, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Grotesque and off-putting as the film often is, there is no denying that the new anamorphic widescreen transfer of Sweet Movie is impressive. The transfer was taken from a 35mm camera negative and digitally restored; it is bright and well-saturated, which reflects the intensity of color in the film’s compositions (it is replete with intense hues of purple, yellow, and red). The image is a bit soft, which is typical of films of this era, but detail is still strong throughout (in some cases, such as the lengthy commune sequence, you might wish the image was not quite so sharp). The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from an original magnetic track and digitally restored, is also very strong, with excellent clarity and sonic detail.|
|There are two new video interviews included on the disc. In the first, which runs 22 minutes, film scholar Peter Cowie talks with Dusan Makavejev about various aspects of the film, especially about its more controversial scenes. Makavejev is quite frank in discussing how the more outrageous moments were filmed, although he doesn’t talk much at all about why Carole Laure walked off the set during the commune scenes (he does mention, though, that he actively pursued Marlon Brandon for the role of the Potemkin sailor). In the second interview, which runs 20 minutes, University of St. Andrews film professor Dina lordanova discusses the historical and political context of both Sweet Movie and WR: Mysteries of the Organism, paying careful attention to how the visuals in the films reflect Makavejev’s political convictions. Finally, the disc includes five minutes of footage from a 1979 episode of the French TV series D’hier et d’aujourd-hui in which actress Anna Prucnal discusses her having been banned from Poland after appearing in Sweet Movie and then sings a new version of the film’s theme song “Les mauvais garcons de la vallée” with lyrics by Pier Paolo Pasolini.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©: The Criterion Collection