Whatever you’ve heard about Sweet Movie, the audacious and outrageous political comedy by Yugoslav filmmaker Dušan Makavejev, there’s a good chance it’s wrong.
Ever since this mischievous masterpiece had its Cannes premiere, in 1974, ill-advised pundits have been calling it uncouth, uncivilized, and offensive. Offensiveness is one of its great strategies, to be sure, but critics who call it a nonstop orgy of odious acts couldn’t have looked very closely at what’s actually on the screen. Far from gratuitous, Sweet Movie is an artistically earnest, politically savvy film that uses every means at its disposal—deadly serious one moment, wildly hilarious the next—to jolt viewers out of lazy, hazy mind-sets that stifle freedom, creativity, and bliss.
Why has Sweet Movie been so hard for some people to get a handle on? One reason is that it’s exactly what it promises to be—a truly trailblazing film committed to breaking cinematic rules and blurring artistic boundaries. Sweet Movie is smart and witty and complex, asking spectators not only to watch and listen but to get onto its radically offbeat wavelength. The more you open up your heart and mind, the more exhilarating you’re likely to find it. Still, it is undeniably a drastic and daunting film—a touchstone for Makavejev’s devotees, a target for his detractors, and a source of lively debate for people who admire him greatly but think this picture simply goes too far.
Makavejev began his career by earning a psychology degree at a leading Serbian university, studying at Yugoslavia’s national film school, and making numerous shorts and documentaries. He burst onto the world cinema stage with his first two features, Man Is Not a Bird and Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, wry sociopolitical dramas made in 1966 and 1967.
Soon afterward he set to work on the 1971 genre bender WR: Mysteries of the Organism, which anticipated Sweet Movie with its collagelike meditation on maverick psychologist Wilhelm Reich and his theories of sexual liberation. By this time, Makavejev was a leader of the so-called Black Cinema filmmakers, as they were dubbed by Yugoslav officials who didn’t like their negative view of official ideologies. The sexual politics of WR was more than those officials could take: the film was banned, and Makavejev fled the country, not working there again until 1988. He made Sweet Movie in Canada, the Netherlands, and France, with additional Swedish and West German funding. It is banned in various countries to this day.
Sweet Movie starts its story with a contest—the Miss World competition of 1984, where top honors go to the prettiest virgin. The winner is Miss Canada, and her prize is marriage to Mr. Dollars, the world’s wealthiest man. Her new husband turns out to be quite a weirdo, though, with a gold-plated penis and a morbid fear of sex-related disease. Angered by her rejection of him on their wedding night, he has her kidnapped, stuffed into a suitcase, and shipped off to Paris, where she makes love with a Spanish crooner. Next she joins a subversive commune, living amid the extravagant shenanigans of its wildly uninhibited members.
Meanwhile, steaming down an Amsterdam canal is a most unusual boat, named Survival and bearing an enormous image of Karl Marx on its bow. The passengers are mostly children, the cargo is candy and sugar. Captain Anna Planeta is hailed by a bike-riding sailor with “Potemkin” written on his cap, whom she picks up and takes as her lover, treating him to steamy sex in her on-board sugar vat. Later she stabs him there, but he responds with laughter. Evidently, even death isn’t very fearsome on the good ship Survival.
The film’s themes—sex, subversion, sweetness—come together near the end, when Miss World immerses her naked body in chocolate for an advertising film, wallowing and undulating with a sensual abandon that reflects the life-changing journey she’s been through. Here as elsewhere in the film, Makavejev satirizes capitalism as sharply as he attacks Soviet Communism; but Miss World has a delicious time anyway. Intolerant as usual, the police close off the movie, by violently arresting many of the surviving characters. At the conclusion, corpses line the side of the canal; yet they start to stir just as the end credits begin, suggesting that life is sweet and unquenchable after all.
Throughout this material, Makavejev’s influences are apparent. One is Reich, whose troubled life and controversial theories were the focus of WR. Reich believed that tapping into free-floating waves of “orgone energy” was a surefire route to health and happiness. This notion was anathema in puritanical cold-war America; federal agents burned his books and threw him in prison, where he died.
Reich’s anarchic energy surges through Sweet Movie, especially in the explosive scenes featuring artist Otto Muehl and his Friedrichshof commune. Muehl founded this Reich-inspired collective in 1972, hoping to replace bourgeois institutions like private property and monogamy with unlimited sexual emancipation and new forms of art that wouldn’t be art but direct manifestations of the life force itself. Like the actual Friedrichshof group, the commune in Makavejev’s movie—the Milky Way, named after Luis Buñuel’s fiercely antireligious film—is devoted to regression therapy, accessing the ecstasy of suppressed human possibilities through reversion to the polymorphous perversity of childhood. What does this mean to you, the viewer? Several minutes of explicit excretion from every bodily orifice, joyously and exuberantly performed. Be prepared!
More disturbing, though, is the documentary footage from the aftermath of the Katyn Forest massacre. At camps near the Russian city of Smolensk, the Soviet army held more than fourteen thousand Polish prisoners of war under ghastly conditions. In 1943, two years after Germany seized the region, an international medical team investigated rumors of a mass grave there. Digging in the nearby Katyn woods, they found multiple layers of Polish corpses, revealing that more than four thousand prisoners had been murdered by their jailers. Not until 1992 did officials of the former Soviet Union confirm that Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin had authorized the killings.
Why does Makavejev reference this so graphically? His native Yugoslavia was a Communist country when he made Sweet Movie, more liberal than most but still within the Soviet sphere of influence. As a sworn enemy of oppression, Makavejev sees Soviet-style Communism as just another form of fascism, used by ruthless dictators to crush true Marxism under their power-mad heels. It’s no accident that the Marx figurehead on the ship Survival has a tear falling from its eye. Marx’s ideals, and his philosophy’s promise of a new and improved “socialist man,” were also buried in the Katyn Forest.
If the attacks on Communism in Sweet Movie seem dated in today’s (mostly) post-Communist world, remember that for Makavejev this isn’t just a narrow political point—it’s an existential argument using Soviet Communism as an example of the life-denying ideologies he ferociously opposes. In other parts of the movie, he heaps criticism on capitalist authoritarianism too. And true to his convictions, Makavejev states his position not through measured, reasonable discourse but through images and words that seem (and often are) the opposite of disciplined and orderly.
Another spirit hovering over Sweet Movie is that of the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, who revolutionized cultural criticism with his idea that “carnivalesque” art—boisterous, untamed, chaotic—is desperately needed to purge society of its pathetic subjection to codes of decency and decorum. Sweet Movie is carnivalesque with a vengeance, aimed at overthrowing every arbitrary rule, regulation, and tradition it can find, including the conventions of cinema itself.
Other sources of inspiration include Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who taught that “intellectual montage” can convey dense, abstract ideas; French cineaste Jean-Luc Godard, another genius of nonlinear montage and against-the-grain politics; and German playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose theory of “epic theater” called for drama that stimulates the intellect as well as the emotions. Makavejev built upon their great achievements in the sixties and seventies, and his efforts to reach wider audiences after Sweet Movie help explain the weaker impact of his later films. In retrospect, the twin collage films WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie seem to mark the dazzling high point of Makavejev’s roller-coaster career.
Francis Ford Coppola was certainly impressed by this period of Makavejev’s work: after seeing WR, he promptly invited the Yugoslav maverick to direct Apocalypse Now. Makavejev declined, making Sweet Movie instead. Admirers of no-holds-barred cinema have been grateful ever since.
David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and emeritus professor of theater and film at Long Island University. He was film critic of the Christian Science Monitor for more than thirty-five years, and his articles have appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, the New York Times, and many other publications. His books include Mad to Be Saved: The Beats, the ’50s, and Film and Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Film Reader.