A Problem with Authority: Dušan Makavejev’s Art of Repulsion

Dušan Makavejev’s boundary-pushing 1974 film Sweet Movie gleefully skewers the forces of social oppression with a twisted double narrative and Day-Glo scenarios. At a time when the director’s native Yugoslavia was carving out a unique position somewhere between the political systems of Eastern and Western Europe, the film’s twin stories were audacious in their attack of the reigning ideologies of the day, sparing neither communism nor capitalism. The two adventures never intersect, though each tells the story of a separate woman’s erotic exploits. One, Mademoiselle Canada (Carole Laure), the virgin prize of a bachelor tycoon, is a pretty personification of commodity culture. The other, Captain Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal), is a failed Marxist revolutionary aboard a ship. Each woman wades through a variety of obstacles and plenty of bodily fluids. There’s the tossing around of human excrement, blood and breastmilk, and even a messy sex-murder in a vat of sugar. All of this, mashed together with sobering black-and-white war atrocity newsreel footage, makes for a sharp critique of social hypocrisy.

The unconventional story is a Frankenstein of tone, a hybrid of horror-shock, pastiche, sketch comedy, and other styles. Made in an era that would come to be defined by the early age of Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, it stands out as a renegade project. Instead of birthing an alternative universe through hero myths and origin-story sequels, the film depicts a world populated by losers—except for one winner, and she becomes a loser by winning too. Makavejev eviscerates any semblance of money-making guide posts with his visual grotesquerie. Why court moviegoers when you can repel them?

One scene early in the film exemplifies its subversive attack on popular taste and political apathy. It also acts as a clear introduction to Makavejev’s interest in the perils of sexual repression, grounded in a belief in the work of the Austrian psychoanalyst William Reich, who advocated exorcising neuroses through erotic and socioeconomic liberation. Welcome to the Miss World 1984 contest, presented as an episode of The Crazy Daisy Show. A velvet-bow-tied announcer lauds it as “sophisticated entertainment,” and the semifinalists are seven of the world’s most well-preserved virgins. This brouhaha is sponsored by the Chastity Belt Foundation and its chairwoman, the matriarch Martha Alplanalpe of the Aristotles Alplanalpe Chain Stores clan (family motto: “When we buy something, we buy the best and we buy it brand new”). The winner will get 50 billion dollars and become the wife of Mrs. Alplanalpe’s beloved son, Mr. Kapital, whose portrait flashes on-screen, a sepia-tone cowboy in front of redwoods.

Even before the scene reaches its most outrageous moments, Makavajev immerses us in a disorienting environment. The set is cobbled together from a bourgeois mix of furniture. Mrs. Martha is wearing a long green satin sheath with a turtleneck of cool-colored paillettes, which she shakes to the beat of bongo drums being played by three men in medieval page outfits. The stage centerpiece is an antiquated fleur-de-lis-painted gynecological chair that looks more like a decorative snow sledge than medical equipment. There’s a spread of three silver modular chairs arranged for the judges on a rectangle of yellow shag carpet cutting up a sea of red flooring. A cheap curtain of gold mylar paper covers the back of the room, and the transom where the contestants enter is an enormous red crepe paper rosebud onto a path of lavender and green.

In comes Dr. Mittlefinger on a unicycle. He stumbles off as the host announces his credentials, “the delivery of three army generals, four members of parliament, Eskimo sextuplets, and of course many, many more people—and women.” Then the doctor puts on an old-fashioned head lamp, the sort used by spelunkers, and stands next to the ornate chair, ready to judge the finalists: Miss Southern Rhodesia, Miss Congo, Miss Yugoslavia, and Mademoiselle Canada. The four candidates are gross imperialist stereotypes of each land. Miss Congo wears a skirt of plastic bananas; Miss Southern Rhodesia, a black bikini with roses at each breast. Then, there’s Miss Yugoslavia, who body-slams a judge like a professional wrestler, and finally Mademoiselle Canada, our victorious heroine dressed in winter whites.

As each contestant submits to Mittlefinger’s perverse examinations, Makavejev gives us a concentrated taste of his transgressive style. Within the space of this single spectacle, there’s a rarified mix of modalities, and a dissonance between what the viewer is seeing and what’s happening in the back alleys of her awareness. Everything is so pretty. Everything is fluorescent! Makavejev couches his antiestablishment message deep within this vibrantly colored pageant, a microcosm of marquee entertainment and a demonstration of the dangers of mass appeal and pop culture.

Mademoiselle Canada is deemed to be the purest of the contestants, which earns her the most cosmic of transactional relationships as she agrees to immediately marry a young scion and submit to complete objectification. She wins the competition not by virtue or wit but by her sexual inexperience, having opted out of the pleasures of the flesh to hang out pantless in her snow booties.

Makavejev is aware of the need to fix an audience’s gaze in order to subvert it. His message, though, is never simple. Sweet Movie  is unwilling to agree to anything, save for a commitment to anti-authoritarian principles and manic hybrid ecologies. What is pure and undiluted is Makavejev’s disregard, his refusal to care about offending the viewer, and his belief that his provocations are far from gratuitous. This pageant victory is just a preview of what’s to come in the film: a feature-length dive into a world of sex and violence, blood and urine, righteousness and complacency—and a collage of tales that have obvious resonance with the luridness of our contemporary reality.