“Not everything can be explained.”–Potemkin in Sweet Movie
DIRECTED BY: Dusan Makavejev
PLOT: A billionaire marries a virgin beauty contest winner. Meanwhile, a Socialist ship captain sails down an Amsterdam canal with a Marx masthead and hold full of sugar and candy. The virgin escapes her wedding night and goes on a sexual odyssey around the world, while the ship captain lures a proletariat man and four children onto the ship and kills them.
- Yugoslavian Dusan Makavejev made some highly regarded movies in the beginning of his career, but he really came to international notice when his strange psychosexual documentary WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) was banned in his home country and he was exiled from the relatively liberal Communist state for making it. Makavejev landed in Canada where he made Sweet Movie. After the outraged reaction to this provocation, Makavejev did not direct a feature again for seven years.
- Makavejev was a devotee of psychoanalyst William Reich (the “WR” of WR: Mysteries of the Organism). Reich began his career as a controversial but serious psychologist advocating total sexual freedom, but descended into madness and crankery in his later years when he claimed to have discovered a mysterious invisible energy named “orgone” that could cure cancer, among its other godlike properties. The film’s orgy performed by members of the Vienna Actionists’ commune under the leadership of performance artist Otto Mühl, who was also a follower of Reich’s teachings.
- Makavejev turned down an invitation from Francis Ford Coppola to direct his script for Apocalypse Now to make Sweet Movie.
- The black and white footage of corpses being disinterred is actual archival footage shot by the Nazis when they discovered the mass graves of the Katyn massacre, where the Soviets had murdered 22,000 Poles on Stalin’s orders in 1940.
- The story was originally intended to follow the adventures of Miss World. Actress Carole Laure felt pressured on the set to perform sexual acts that made her uncomfortable, and she quit the production after shooting a scene in which she fondled a man’s flaccid penis. She later complained that the film was edited to make it appear that she engaged in more sexual activity than she actually had. To fill out the running time, Makavejev added the plot with Anna the ship captain.
- The Polish government revoked actress and cabaret singer Anna Prucnal’s passport because of her involvement with Sweet Movie, and she was unable to return home for seven years.
- Sweet Movie was banned in Britain (and in many other countries). In the United States it played with 4 minutes of scatology cut out.
- Sweet Movie was one of two films selected as among the weirdest movies of all time in 366 Weird Movies 4th Reader’s Choice poll.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: After watching Sweet Movie, you’ll wish, in vain, that you could wash some of the images out of your mind—particularly the commune feast featuring food in all its forms, pre- and post-digestion. There are other moments that are strikingly beautiful, for example, Anna Planeta and Potemkin making love in a vat of sugar as a white mouse crawls over their bodies. For the most memorable image, however, we’ll go with the film’s first and funniest shock: the wedding night, when, after rubbing his new bride down with isopropyl alcohol while she clutches a crown of Christmas lights between her thighs, Mr. Dollars reveals his uniquely pimped-out phallus.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mixing beauty with disgust like sugar mixed with blood, Sweet Movie is a confused concoction of politics, sex, excreta, and Reichian psychology. Exiled director Dusan Makavejev abandoned all reason to make this movie, a fact which ironically makes its stabs at political satire ring hollow. Still, as a strange cinematic thing, Sweet Movie has an undeniable freak show appeal for those with strong stomachs: just be prepared for a cavalcade of unsimulated urine, puke, feces, mother’s milk, and pedophilia.
Unofficial 2013 trailer for Sweet Movie (made by Chelsea Sweetin of Montreal’s “Garden Scene Evenings”)
COMMENTS: Dusan Makavejev must have been very confused when he was making Sweet Movie, but probably even more so when he was editing it. He wanted to tell a political allegory about the failure of socialism while simultaneously mocking capitalist excess, and at the same time drawing parallels between sexual repression and authoritarianism, while also indulging his interest in Recihian psychology and Brechtian absurdism, and shoehorning in some documentary footage he had lying around, while still finding time to pursue his primary goal of shocking the audience’s bourgeois complacencies by breaking every carnal taboo he could think of. Add to this the fact that his lead actress, Carole Laure, left the production in disgust before it was completed and he had to invent a new plot to fill out the running time, and it may be surprising that Sweet Movie is as coherent an experience as it turned out to be. The imagery—food, waste, sex, rebirth—is woven throughout the whole movie consistently, yet the film is constantly struggling to find its footing amidst the muck it has created for itself. Sweet Movie can’t commit to being a satire or an allegory or a piece of genuine Surrealism; its only guiding principle is to unsettle, unnerve and nauseate the audience.
Sweet Movie tells two unconnected stories, one involving capitalism and the other communism, both of which are revealed to be equally corrupt in the end. We are introduced to lovely and innocent capitalist babe Carole Laure as Canada’s entry in the bizarre Miss World beauty pageant. First prize is marriage to a billionaire milk-baron “Mr. Dollars,” so long as a gynecological exam reveals the contestant is a virgin. As a monk beats on bongos, Dr. Middlefinger puts her in stirrups and finds that not only is her prize-winning hymen intact, it’s positively glowing. As a parody of a rich dumb American, her bridegroom Dollars is about as subtle as his name suggests (he wears a cowboy hat and thinks the Karl Marx shot the Czar to start World War I), but his sexual perversions prove too much for the inexperienced girl. She complains to her new mother-in-law, who hands her off to the family bodyguard, a bodybuilder who stuffs her into a soft-sided suitcase after she manages to once more avoid heterosexual intercourse (“I’ll do something to you that my father taught me,” she offers). Carted off on a luggage truck, she winds up at the Eiffel Tower, where she suddenly forgets her chastity and gives up her virginity to a lip-synching matinée idol in a sombrero and glitter eyeshadow. They have disastrous coitus that leaves her despondent and catatonic; she’s put in a wheelbarrow and taken to a commune where she’s breastfed back to a semblance of life by a lactating mother. Then, in a documentary orgy that lasts for nearly twenty disgusting minutes, the members of the commune eat until they puke, stick a sausage in a man’s pants and slice it up with a meat cleaver, defecate on a stage, rub feces on a man’s chest as he pretends to be an infant, and generally act like a troupe of hippie performance artists secretly dosed with PCP-laced laxatives. Laure looks like she’s genuinely about to cry at the end of this sequence; the audience will sympathize. According to Sweet Movie‘s Reichian logic, Miss Monde should be reborn after her exposure to this regression therapy meant to deprogram her from society’s taboos. But when she takes her final bow she is reincarnated not as an apolitical innocent, but as the ultimate symbol of consumeralized sexuality: a naked woman writing in a vat of chocolate in a commercial for a candy company.
Meanwhile, in the supplemental plotline, a ship is cruising down a canal in Amsterdam with a bust of Karl Marx jutting from the prow; a man dressed as a Russian sailor with a hat reading “Potemkin” tries to get the attention of captain “Anna Planeta” from the shore (he waves to her while urinating into the canal). The shipbound segments have a complete different feel from Miss World’s adventures; the dialogue is even more absurd, but its also dour and fatalistic. It’s as if capitalism is a comedy, but Communism is a tragedy. In post-coital bliss, the couple exchange Marxist platitudes and sing Socialist sea shanties together, but soon Captain Planeta feels the need to warn her new lover that “this boat is full of corpses.” “It doesn’t matter,” her blithe ‘sexual proletariat’ tells her, “the whole world is full of corpses.” This observation is followed by archival footage of the Nazis exhuming bodies from the Soviet-led Katyn massacre, an intrusion of tragic reality that somehow manages to feel especially out of place in a movie where absolutely everything is out of place. Now that socialism’s dark side has been graphically shown, we come to an allegorical retelling of its failures: the Captain lures four young boys on board and shows her the ship’s hold, which is full of candy and a huge vat of pure, uncut granulated sugar. Dressing in a flimsy white gown and bridal veil, she performs an explicit striptease for the lads as they munch on their sweets. Sex is implied, and then later she tells Potemkin they must get rid of the witnesses (we see the boys’ corpses later). They then make love half-buried in sugar before Anna knifes him into orgasm, and churning the mingled blood and sugar grains into a crimson paste with the blade.
Despite all the vomit and excrement, of all the provocations in Sweet Movie, the striptease sequence is the one that goes too far and changes the movie from a self-important exercise in art-house gross-out to something morally wrong. The nauseating bacchanalia at the commune is severe, but it involves only consenting adults. If a director wants to push people’s moral buttons with editing trickery, or by employing actors engaging in extreme behavior, that’s fair game; but involving children in unsimulated sex scenarios with the sole intent of disturbing the audience is unethical, the mark of a filmmaker who’s passed beyond provocation and into exploitation. (If you don’t find yourself offended, imagine if the genders were reversed, and it was a male actor thrusting his crotch in the faces of prepubescent girls; the movie would then be undistributable). This scene poisons the imagery around it, which turns from genial shock into something more deranged. Add to this our knowledge that Laure left the film because she felt pressured to do things that made her uncomfortable, and we begin to see a vision of a director who wants to moralize, but has no moral center himself. Makavejev wants to condemn the way political systems exploit the masses, but he himself has no problem exploiting his actors to realize his vision. The artist’s desire to shock the viewer is so single-minded that it undercuts any other message he might be trying to send. Makavejev may condemn capitalism for making people dumb and greedy, and communism for seducing them into po-faced totalitarianism, but here we see the director himself as a dictator who isn’t ashamed to use his own property—the actors—as he sees fit, to advance his own personal ideology.
But no one wants to see Sweet Movie for its political philosophy. We want to see beautiful women writhing nude in liquid chocolate, gold-plated penises, and uninhibited orgies that go far beyond our deepest desires. Give us enough shocking spectacle, and we’ll overlook the movie’s sins. Sweet Movie delivers on the weirdness and the grotesquerie; but maybe on hypocrisy, too. The most likely effect of the movie on an audience is to reaffirm their bourgeois proprieties: yeah, those taboos against coprophagia, the sexualization of children, and the random insertion of pointless political musings into movies are pretty valid after all, aren’t they?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[Makavejev] considers Marxism, sex, violence, capitalism, political crimes and bizarre methods of personal contact in a way so radical and original that his movies are subversive of our everyday assumptions. He’s like a Bosch, making connections through hallucinations, deciding for himself what things look like.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous, censored cut)
“…a blitz of outrageous and nearly criminal offenses, cobbled onto a handful of silly dream-plots… the brutal élan that emits from this often wildly unpleasant movie is unforgettable.”–Michael Atkinson, IFC (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Sweet Movie (1974)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Sweet Movie (1974): The Criterion Collection – Synopsis, a short clip, and a link to David Sterritt’s essay defending the movie
The World Tasted: Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie – Published in “Senses of Cinema,” Issue 47 (2008), this extremely detailed critical exposition of Sweet Movie by Lorraine Mortimer is an excerpt from her book on Makavejev
Sweet Movie @ Brows Held High – Brows Held High’s humorously shocked video review of Sweet Movie
List Candidate: Sweet Movie (1974) – This site’s original unenthusiastic review of the film
DVD INFO: Sweet Movie was only available on rare VHS tapes before the Criterion Collection released it (along with four other Makavejev films) in an uncut, director-approved DVD (buy) in 2007. Extras include interviews with Makavejev and film scholar Dina Iordanova, a clip of Anna Prucnal singing, and the usual Criterion booklet with two critical essays on the film. At this writing Criterion has not yet issued the movie in Blu-ray format.
(This movie was originally nominated for review by Dan, who called it “by far one of the strangest movies i have ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)