Sweet Movie Review

With the release of WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Dusan Majavejev was very much on the cutting edge of filmmakers (if you’ll excuse the cliché). As well as the film’s ambition, political relevance and formal innovation, the Yugoslav (now Serbian) director had also become a standard-bearer for cinematic permissiveness and the breakdown of censorship. But there was a price to be paid: Makavejev was exiled from his home country and had settled in France. Nemesis was on its way. A French/Canadian/West German coproduction, Sweet Movie’s production benefited from the support of leading international filmmakers, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini (more about him later). His producer was Vincent Malle, brother of Louis.

Sweet Movie takes up Makavejev’s trademarked “collage” style where WR left off. While the earlier film mixed 16mm and 35mm, documentary and acted drama, Sweet Movie’s strands are primarily fictional. There are two main storylines. In the first, we’re watching a gynaecological beauty contest, where each entrant is examined to ensure her virginity. The winner is Miss Canada (Carole Laure) and her prize is the hand in marriage of a mother-dominated millionaire (John Vernon). But the wedding night is cut short when Miss Canada discovers that her husband has a gold penis. Angered by her rejection of him, the millionaire has Miss Canada transported to France in a suitcase.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, a large boat called Survival, complete with large head of Karl Marx on its bow, sails up the canals. The captain is Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal). She’s hailed by a sailor from the famous Russian battleship Potemkin (Pierre Clementi) and they have rampant sex on board ship.

Sweet Movie is, as you might have guessed, not amenable to ready synopsis. If I add that the proceedings include sexual intercourse on top of the Eiffel Tower, resulting in a vaginal spasm locking the couple together and a food orgy featuring the real-life Otto Muehl and his commune (and more of him later), and murder in a vat of sugar. The film’s finale involves Miss Canada wallowing in a vat of chocolate for an advertising shoot.

The world was not ready for Sweet Movie when it was made in 1974, and it’s doubtful whether it ever will be. I didn’t find it especially shocking – though one scene, which I’ll describe below when discussing the film’s censorship history – is certainly disquieting. And there’s no doubt that many people will find the film repellent, especially the food orgy, which features smearing food everywhere outside the mouth as well as in it, a man pretending to regress to babyhood, vomiting and urination, not to mention defecating onto dinner plates (not faked, but not graphically shown either). Briefly, Otto Muehl and his commune, greatly influenced by Wilhelm Reich’s theories (see WR), believed that liberation lay in a complete freedom from taboo and a celebration of the polymorphous perversity of childhood. (Alas, unfettered sexual expression does have its limits – something that rather dates this film now – as Muehl later served a prison sentence for child abuse.) Be warned!

What this all adds up to is a rather scattershot picture depicting Makavejev’s disenchantment with the way Marx’s ideals had been perverted – not for nothing does the head of the philosopher have a tear in its eye. Miss Canada’s story depicts her as a commodity from start to finish: the film’s supporter Pasolini was to give his own take on the commodification of society in his roughly contemporary Salo. But in the middle of this, Makavejev cuts to Nazi-shot archive footage of the uncovering of the corpses of over 15,000 Poles, executed in Katyn Forest by Soviet troops in 1940. (This notorious massacre, then officially denied by the Russians, is incidentally the subject of Andrzej Wajda’s new film.) If what we have seen in this fictional film is obscene, Makavejev seems to be saying, then how do we deal with a real atrocity like Katyn?

Most of the characters are cartoonish, in many cases more allegorical than realistic, and are given broad performances to match. Carole Laure walked off the film and has since disowned it. But what she does here is certainly very game: not only does she perform the chocolate scene referred to above, she also breaks eggs over her own head and even fondles a man’s penis in close-up. The late George Melly is listed in the cast, though I can’t claim to have spotted him. Pierre Lhomme’s camerawork goes in for rich, saturated colours and there’s an attractive music score from Manos Hadjidakis.

Sweet Movie ran headlong into censorship boards worldwide. It’s at this point that the then BBFC Secretary Stephen Murphy re-enters the picture. He had previously passed WR, in what I suggest is one of the most liberal decisions in the Board’s entire history. Murphy resigned after three years – which are described in Film Censorship by Guy Phelps, himself to become a BBFC Senior Examiner – and one of his last decisions was to reject Sweet Movie. As the film has never been formally resubmitted, that ban stands to this day. A major problem was the scene where Anna Planeta lures some young boys on board her boat with the promise of sweets, seduces them and then kills them. What we see onscreen is limited to her seductive dance: any sexual activity and the killings happen offscreen. It’s hard to say if this scene will have difficulties today – there is no actual physical contact between any of the children and Anna – but as I’m not a lawyer it’s not for me to speculate. It’s not an easy scene to defend in any case, though it is fair to say that standards have shifted in the thirty-three years since this film were made. Just as no-one thought anything was amiss when Robert Mapplethorpe shot his picture Rosie in 1976, an image that had to be removed more recently from a major exhibition devoted to the artist, we are now far more sensitive to issues of children and sexuality than we were then.

What may have been the price of Sweet Movie, though was Makavejev’s career. By the mid-1970s, the revolutionary spirit of 1968 had long since faded, and he found it harder to fund films like his own, mainly constructed in the editing. It was seven years before he made another feature. While Montenegro and The Coca Cola Kid (the only two later Makavejevs that I have seen) are entertaining, sexy comedies, they are far more conventional in form than his earlier films. Somehow a fire has gone out.

Sweet Movie is number 390 in the Criterion Collection. It consists of one dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 1 only.

Shot in 35mm, Sweet Movie is presented in its original ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. I’d not seen this film before, but as the transfer is approved by Makavejev I have to assume it’s accurate. As mentioned above, Pierre Lhomme’s photography goes in for deliberately saturated colours – skin tones appear quite red in places – but the transfer is sharp and blacks are solid.

As with WR, Sweet Movie was filmed in a mixture of languages: much of it English, with Anna Planeta talking in Polish and the sailor in French, with songs in other languages. The mono soundtrack is fine, with the dialogue always clear.

There is no commentary this time, so the bulk of the extras is made up of two interviews. First is Makvajev himself, talking to Peter Cowie in 2006, in an interview especially filmed for this DVD, a run-through of the making of the film and what it tried to achieve. For Laure’s final scene, real chocolate did not flow properly, so a mixture of chocolate and clay was used instead. This interview is in 16:9 anamorphic and runs 22:10.

I have no doubt that, given the frequency and density of reference and allusion in both WR and Sweet Movie, that there was much that passed me by. Fortunately Dina Iordanova, a specialist in Balkan cinema, is on hand (20:27). As she points out, many of the references are far clearer if you are an Eastern European, and she discusses a good few of them.

Finally, there is an extract from a 1979 French television programme, where Anna Prucnal talks about the reaction to the film – in short, she was unable to return to her native Poland – and sings one of the songs from the film (with new lyrics by Pasolini). This item is in 4:3 and runs 4:43. Also included is Crterion’s usual booklet, which contains informative essays by David Sterritt and Stanley Cavell.

Like much of the foodstuffs we see on screen, Sweet Movie’s antic surface gives way to a bitter, sour aftertaste. Certainly not a film for everyone – it’s doubtful how many people are on Makavejev’s wavelength to begin with – it’s been quite difficult to see for some time, though it used to be a repertory staple in France and may still be. It’s enough of a cult item to be worthy of Criterion’s usual thorough job of DVD production if you are open-minded, and strong-stomached, enough to take a look.

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