Warning the following review contains spoilers.
The 60s and 70s counter culture revolution introduced a number of significant filmmakers to the stage of world cinema. Perhaps the most controversial of these is Yugoslavia’s Dusan Makavejev whose taboo breaking movies of the 70s, WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971) and SWEET MOVIE (1974) achieved notoriety and censorship problems for their unabashed expression of sexual politics and violence. But whilst WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM was highly praised amongst critics and hailed as one of the most subversive masterpieces of the decade for its hilarious, eroticised politics that propose sex as the ideological imperative for revolution, SWEET MOVIE was reviled by both the press and filmgoers (despite achieving some success in Israel and Italy) and outlawed in several countries (including South Africa, Britain, and Canada where it remains banned to this day). The scandal caused by the film meant that Makavejev would not make another for 7 years.
Born in 1932 to Serbian parents in Belgrade, Dusan Makavejev became hooked on cinema after seeing Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES - a film that he felt had been "made for me, for my generation". 1 He studied psychology and began writing film reviews based on film society screenings of British 30s documentaries and classic silents of Russian cinema. In 1953, Makavejev made the first of a series of 16mm films, The Journey to Old Yugoslavia, supporting his personal film projects with finance obtained from several documentaries produced for Yugoslav companies. "Spomencima Ne Treba Verovati" (1958) was the first to feature sexually charged scenes of seduction and was banned in its home country for five years as a result. His first full length feature, MAN IS NOT A BIRD (1966), mixes fiction and documentary footage in a tale that includes all the staples and motifs seen in the directors later work: sex between beautiful women and sleazy men, improvised scenes involving local performers (in this case a hypnotist and a snake charmer), violence, vivid location shooting, and the use of monumental architecture to dwarf and fascinate the characters. Love Affair, or THE CASE OF THE MISSING SWITCHBOARD OPERATOR (1967) told the tale of the title character’s trysts with a sensitive rat catcher that leads to disaster. The film plays with time juxtaposing scenes of the denouement with the past and inserting revolutionary film clips to illustrate the contrast between communist pomposity and the lives of ordinary people destined for malevolence. His next feature, INNOCENCE UNPROTECTED (1968), is a witty re-cutting of scenes from an earlier 1942 movie (of the same name) secretly made, during the Nazi occupation, by an acrobat called Dragoljub Aleksic, and concerns a young girl whose stepmother wants her to marry someone other than her lover, Aleksic. The film is the first to feature whimsical shots of the male body including lengthy close-ups of Alexsic flexing his muscular form and indulging in egocentric acrobatics.
Makavejev’s most accessible film, WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM, takes the writings of sexual psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Reich (famed for his ’orgone box’ which he alleged could be used to cure diseases such as cancer), footage of Reich and his wife, interviews with friends and family, mixes them up with controversial Soviet excerpts from THE VOW (1946) and Nazi atrocity footage. The result serves as a paean to Reich, a plea for sexual liberation ("Comrade-lovers, for your health’s sake, fuck freely!"), and anti-war film. Outrageous visuals included a penis plaster cast made of the editor of American sex magazine Screw, and a Soviet figure skating champion who beheads his girlfriend with one of his skates following ejaculation. The film ends with its sexy star Milena Dravic announcing to a crowd of assembled Yugoslav workers and peasants "Fuck merrily and without fear! Even the smallest child will tell you that the sweetest place is between the legs!"
And, it’s the inclusion of children in sexually charged scenes in SWEET MOVIE that managed to outrage the authorities in several countries. Filmed in Canada, France, and Holland, this bizarre satire on insanity, debauchery, and the ’sweet’ joys of the flesh has one intention - to shock. The film features two parallel storylines. One concerns a 1984 Miss World winner and her abduction by a cult of mad hedonists and the other tells of a sailor’s death at the hands of a psychotic sexual revolutionary in a bed of sugar…
The screen opens to a shot of a peasant woman singing in operatic tone "On the mountain top I see something black. Is it cow shit or my beloved?" The film cuts to a bizarre Miss World 1984 final sponsored by a chastity belt company, and four contestants find themselves undergoing a virginity test. A female judge, looking like a cross between Barbara Cartland, Mary Whitehouse, and The Bride of Frankenstein, extols the virtues of the chastity belt and its ability to dampen the sexual appetite in women: "If not controlled and kept at bay wild impulses will turn everyone into beastly animals". Up for grabs is $50,000,000 and marriage to a Texan billionaire. A gynaecologist arrives on a unicycle and proceeds to examine the finalists. Miss Southern Rhodesia starts to get turned on and soon becomes apparent that she’s not a virgin, the bare breasted Miss Congo attempts to seduce the doctor by treating him to a head massage with the aid of her feet, whilst muscle bound feminist Miss Yugoslavia proceeds to wrestle the judges and beat all the men present to a pulp. It’s left to the beautiful Miss Canada (Carole Laure) with the "sweetest" vagina to carry off the trophy and marry Mr. Dollars (John Vernon).
The action switches to the second tale. A boat named Survival, bearing the figurehead of Karl Marx, cruises into Amsterdam’s harbour, crewed by Capt. Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal) and her singing troupe of revolutionaries. A passing sailor (Pierre Clement) spies the boat and is smitten with its sexy captain. He pursues the craft on his bicycle through several canals and is eventually invited aboard.
Back in Canada, Mr Dollars is preparing to bed his new wife; he meticulously cleans his teeth, washes himself and strips down to his white boxer shorts that bear patterned cherry prints. He strips his wife and washes her with antiseptic, removes his shorts, reveals a golden penis and urinates over her, giving new rise to the term golden showers. The scene is inter-cut with stock footage of the Niagara Falls.
We discover that our Dutch sailor hails from the Battleship Potemkin. Captain Planeta tells him; "Those who starve know how to make love". The two make love upon the boat’s ladder much to the enjoyment of a crowd of cheering gatherers on the edges of the canal (the mob, most likely, consisting of unsuspecting members of the public out in force to witness the filming of Makavejev’s hilarious antics).
Poor Miss World is not having things so good, she is thrown into a swimming pool and then dragged out by a muscle-bound Mr. Universe type who cages her within a huge plastic milk bottle. She is then forced to perform sex acts for him and then packed into a suitcase, and sent by plane to Paris.
The revolution is getting into full swing aboard the Survival where the naked sailor is being bathed by several female revolutionaries and informed that the boat is full of corpses. We are then treated to the first of a series of newsreel documentaries spliced into the main action that foreshadow events within the narratives: In the forest of Katyn depicts the discovery of thousands of corpses murdered by the Nazis. This is followed by a brief shot of our Dutch sailor diving into a vat of sugar.
Virginal Miss World escapes from the suitcase and finds herself at the foot of the Eiffel Tower where a live performance by greasy, camp rock star El Macho (Sami Frey) - imagine a nightmarish combination of Demis Roussos, Freddie Mercury, and Renato (of Save Your Love infamy) in a Sombrero - is being filmed. "I’m a wild stallion. Hoofs of gold, flying mane. Looking for the feast with a thrusting sword", he warbles. Our superstar is captivated by Carole Laure’s semi-clad charms and ignores an adoring crowd of women, that include a group of nuns, and it’s not long before she’s being deflowered beneath his black cape. She’s obviously a shag to boast about down the local, because an ecstatic looking El Macho passes out on the job. The couple awake in a chef’s kitchen surrounded by camera-clicking nuns, an army of fans, and the entire kitchen staff who witness a doctor announce that the couple have become inseparable as they are suffering from "Love cramp"… "It happens to dog’s too!" he explains. They finally ’come’ apart as El Macho entertains all and sundry with another terrible song whilst Miss World cracks eggs on top of her head.
A group of prepubescent boys are enticed onto the boat by Captain Anna with the offer of lollipops, then, lured to the hull where thousands of sweets housed in old printer typecases await them. Anna appears in a virgin’s bridal gown worn back to front in order to display her breasts, and starts removing her garters, stockings, gloves and draping them over the excited kids. The scene ends with the young boys joining her for a round of sweet sex.
Miss World seems to have lost her mind and is put into the care of the ’Therapie-Komune’, an insane sect of sexual deviants who indulge in infantilism. There follows a lengthy food orgy that some viewers may have difficulty watching. The commune scoff from plates with their hands, spit food, vomit, have sex, and urinate over each other, before participating in a defecation contest with the resultant faeces recycled on food plates. This gross episode is accompanied by further archive footage entitled Physical Drill for Health’s Sake. Hygienic Gymnastics in which a doctor from Berlin massages babies and swings them about by their feet.
The food orgy climaxes with shots of a delirious fat man being pummelled in the stomach, he understandably pukes up its contents whilst a topless, shaven haired woman rubs herself up and down his chest. The assembled crowd massage him until he urinates over himself and is then smothered in flour. The scene ends with everyone dancing naked.
Aboard the sugar boat, Anna and the sailor make love in the sugar bed as a white mouse runs over them. They drink coffee and make love once more. Anna viciously bites her lover and he bleeds profusely, but before he can react, she pulls a knife and disembowels him beneath the sugar. Puddles of blood rise to the surface and he dies. A tracking shot by the side of the boat reveals an angry crowd as the corpses of the sailor and all the young boys are pulled ashore. The Dutch police arrive and arrest the screaming Captain and her female crew. We witness another group of young children assemble on a bridge to survey the scene.
The film closes with a sequence in which a naked Miss World bathes in a vat of chocolate until she drowns. We cut to war footage of the Nazis examining the decomposed corpses of their victims, interspersed with shots of the Dutch children in body bags lying on the bank. They slowly start to rise from their sugar coated death sheets and gaze at the camera….
A surreal combination of the darkest elements of early David Lynch, Passolini, and Pythonesque visuals, SWEET MOVIE has to rate as one of the most original and disturbing movies of the 70s. Despite the fact that there is no story as such, and little characterization, the film lingers in the mind long afterwards. The film is stylishly directed and the scenes are highly fetishized. Particularly erotic is the striptease performed by Anna Prucnal when she goes into Hansel and Gretel mode, the film is all the more thought provoking when we realise that this scene ought to be shocking. Fascinating visuals abound, the Survival bearing the head of Karl Marx sailing through the canals is a marvellous image, and equally absorbing is the scene in which sexy Carole Laure covers herself with chocolate.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said "the movie defies criticism while it seems to demand it, and I keep on thinking about it while I know I’m not getting anywhere". The fact that Sweet Movie lingers on the mind is not purely down to its outrageous visuals, the film is quite a roller coaster when it comes to engaging our emotions. As Makavajev has stated “SWEET MOVIE will not be afraid of looking like a dream and will permit many oddities. It hopes to fling you from horror into joy, and then again, quite unexpectedly, to jerk tears out of you”. As well as probing the idea that madness is often the key to survival in a loveless world inhabited by greed and war, the film investigates the paradoxical way in which ‘sweetness’ interacts in our daily lives: the seductiveness of sugar and candy, the allure of sex and fetishism, how its delights can lead to addiction, and the manipulation of/by sweetness that can result in tragedy and corruption.
Makavajev, therefore, must have been delighted that the movie stirred up such controversial emotions. It is alleged that star Carole Laure stormed off the set, an act that led to the Canadian authorities banning the movie. And in Amsterdam, the owner whose houseboat was used for the Survival instigated a lawsuit against the director when he learned of the film’s planned finale. When the judge announced a ruling in eight days time the plaintiff realised that Makavejev would, by then, have shot the scene and fled the country, and so boarded the ship with a group of friends in order to take control of things himself. Makavejev immediately ordered his camera crew to film the ensuing chaos that resembled an anarchic final reel from an Errol Flynn swashbuckler. But, perhaps, the best tale concerns the Italian dubbed version of SWEET MOVIE (over which Pier Paolo Pasolini presided). A few years ago the popular Italian current affairs weekly Espresso Magazine learned of the film’s controversial history and decided to put the question of whether the film constituted art or exploitation to its readership. An amazing 600,000 copies of the film on videotape were shrink-wrapped with the magazine and sent out to its readership. It’s ridiculous to think that such an outrageous movie, so rarely seen in the UK, can probably be picked up in any number of Italian charity stores, shelved there, right next to a copy of a Fabio fitness video.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Dusan Makavejev
French with English Subtitles
Yugoslavia/France/Amsterdam/Canada / 1974 / 98 minutes
DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
Region 1 / NTSC