148. SWEET MOVIE (1974)

“Not everything can be explained.”–Potemkin in Sweet Movie

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, ,

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.

Still from Sweet Movie (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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)

“…the over-all work remains a courageous example of a personal kind of film making that, to me, leads nowhere.:”–Vincent Canby, The New York 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.)

7 thoughts on “148. SWEET MOVIE (1974)”

  1. Sorry G. Smalley, but you make the mistake of so many critics who assume everyone who watches a film thinks like them – that they speak for the “masses.” To say that no one watches “Sweet Movie” for it’s political philosophy is simply myopic. Makavejev is a political filmmaker. “Sweet Movie” is his political masterpiece. Okay, he was pushing artistic boundaries (as many were in the 1970s), but to say the film has no moral center is ridiculous. This is such a splendid poetic work with such profound beauty and depth. I generally respect and admire your reviews, but not about this one.

    1. Steve,

      Wow, I hope I never speak for the masses—save me from that fate. I defend my statement as rhetorical rather than myopic. Obviously I don’t literally propose that no one is interested in Makavejev’s political philosophy. But, although it’s impossible to measure, I’d wager that far more people tuned in to this to see gold-plated penises, puke-and-scat orgies, and Carole Laure rolling around naked in a vat of chocolate. I would not be shocked if over half of the viewers, including those who love the film, missed the political subtext entirely. Perhaps that reflects my low opinion of the viewing audience more than of Makavejev.

      I hated this movie, which is fine. Most readers here love it. It would be boring if we all agreed about weird movies, which by their very nature set out to challenge and divide. I am sure Mr. Makavejev would prefer I hate his movie to me being completely neutral about it, just as I am happier that people would violently disagree with my opinion here than that they would simply shrug and go on to the next glowing review.

    2. I’m pretty sure it was hyperbole, Steve. And how anyone can be so defensive about a film like this I don’t know. If you disagree, that’s fine, but try and flesh out WHY a little more.

  2. I actually bought this film about a year ago due to it having a fairly decent IMDB rating, a positive Roger Ebert review, and a Criterion Release. The first portions were great, it was a glitzy sci-fi sex comedy that resembled an ancestor to Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. It had me on board for a while, for a moment I was wondering why this film was so little known.

    The answer to that inquiry came shortly after once the strip tease and the puking and crapping came on. They really could have used clever editing to get the same point across without shoving Prucnel’s crotch in the boys faces. It would have been a lot easier and would have kept her from getting deported. The scene at the commune went on for a truly ridiculous length (A half hour of a 90 minute film) and resembled something of a primordial Ebaum’s World. I don’t know what’s worse, that the filmmakers attempt to defend that scene with psychobabble or that some folks actually bought into it. Most charming of all is that the guy in charge of the commune, Otto Muehl, served 7 years in jail for sleeping with an underaged girl (keep in mind, the age of consent in Austria is 14). The more you look at the circumstances surrounding this film, the harder it is to defend.

    Dusan Makavejev is clearly very talented but his immaturity sank what could have been a very promising film. Never have I seen a film start off so well before self destructing like this. What should have been a fun weird film, left me feeling cheated and ripped off by the end of it. I see this film as a manifestation of every negative stereotype about art house films. It is films such as this one that make the stranger films out there have difficulty in finding an audience or being able to recommend titles. Thank you so much for your honesty with this review, G. Smalley.

  3. Whatever the feelings about this movie, if one is seeking a film where nothing is held back, this is it. Regarding whether or not people see it for vulgarity/sensationalism v. politics I can’t say, but I personally was intrigued by both and found them to be strange but interesting poles for a film (as I did as well with WR: Mysteries of the Organism). If anything, I think the political is more behind the film even though it may appear to be subtext. I feel as though the political side gives Makavejev’s work intention it otherwise wouldn’t have, even if it is an elusive one for audiences, especially American. If I were to sum up the movie in a single theme, admitting that it in no way encompasses the extent of its meaning, I’d say it has to do with the fallacy of innocence, and looks at two of the areas that most challenge notions of innocence: sex and politics. Referencing the Katyn massacre and the suspected Soviet assassination of Leon Trotsky, probably among other allusions, Makavejev is pointing an incriminating finger at the pursuit of Communist “utopia” at any cost. As far as Otto Muehl’s commune footage, my sense is that it was more or less documentary, which I found interesting. And as a document of actual sexual exploration, it provides another side of sex to be placed alongside the eroticism of virginal purity, which is just as troublesome, if not more. But I don’t think its fair to discredit Makavejev or judge the movie poorly because of Muehl’s sexual crimes. I don’t think this was the reason it was included in the film. I do take some issue with the striptease for young boys. I think discussions would be quite different if it were a grown male thrusting his cock inches from pre-teen girls’ faces. All in all though, I think this is a smart, fearless film, even if it contains elements I can’t get behind 100%.

  4. I totally get where you’re coming from, and I don’t believe that the film is without merit. It just kills me that the first 40 minutes were so effective and the film totally ditches that style. If Sweet Movie was able to maintain it’s Russ Myer by way of Luis Bunuel style anarchic humor throughout the film, it would have been one of the best surrealist films of the 70s decade. Even ahead of W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, which I am a fan of.
    For me, I just felt the “provocative” aspects were way overdone and destroyed the merit that was previously earned through its effective blend of slapstick and satire. Yes, vulgarity has been used effectively in films. The careers of Jodorowsky, Pasolini, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Peter Greenaway, Takashi Miike, and most recently, Gaspar Noe have made the claim that vulgarity in films can be poignant to a films story and themes. Whereas with Sweet Movie, after 30 minutes of 6 year old lap dances and cultists playing with their vomit and feces, I felt like I was at the expense of a practical joke made by the filmmakers. I respect Makavajev’s ambition and intentions as a filmmaker, but the fruits of his labor in this instance I find a hard time defending.

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