The following is a version of a chapter from her forthcoming book, Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev, also for the University of Minnesota Press.
Sweet Movie, full of unenlighted lunacy, is not really a film at all. It is a social disease.
– Jay Cocks, 1975 (1)
Sweet Movie [is] in effect the most concentrated work I know that follows out the idea that the way to assess the state of the world is to find out how it tastes (a sense modality not notably stressed by orthodox epistemologists but rather consigned to a corner of aesthetics) – which means both to find out how it tastes to you and how it tastes you, for example, to find out whether you and the world are disgusting to one another […]
The film attempts to extract hope – to claim to divine life after birth – from the very fact that we are capable of genuine disgust at the world; that our revoltedness is the chance for a cleansing revulsion; that we may purge ourselves by living rather than by killing, willing to visit hell if that is the direction to something beyond purgatory; that the fight for freedom continues to originate in the demands of our instincts, the chaotic cry of our nature, our cry to have a nature. It is a work powerful enough to encourage us to see again that the tyrant’s power continues to require our complicitous tyranny over ourselves.
– Stanley Cavell, 1979 (2)
Three quarters of the way through Sweet Movie, Miss Monde 1984 (Miss World; Carole Laure), a young woman in complete disarray, is being wheeled onscreen in a barrow, a leg discernible amid some lettuce, arriving at a door to a warehouse. It is the entrance to the Therapie Komune run by psychoanalyst filmmaker Otto Muehl, where in Makavejev’s film Miss World, traumatized and anorexic, is to be nourished back to health and life. (3)
Inside, another woman, Momma Communa (Marpessa Dawn), nurses a baby, soothing it with the singing of “Three Blind Mice”, as Miss World is emptied onto the floor, commune members handling and rocking her body, in something like the gentler forms of therapy we saw in the documentary scenes in Makavejev’s previous film, W.R. – Misterije organizma (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). There is an accordion playing and a dark-haired woman (Anna Prucnal) is feeding people salad from a large bowl as Miss World is placed in a hanging cradle while she is sung to and showered with lettuce leaves. She is rocked like a baby and the film cuts to Momma Communa feeding her child, the child taking a moist breast with its sweet milk into its mouth. Soon, to the strains of a soft lullaby, the mother goes to the cradle and gently opens Miss World’s mouth, moistening her own finger with saliva and tracing it round the young woman’s lips, re-awakening the mouth, which starts to open and move, tentatively. Regaining one of her functions, Miss World suckles at Momma Communa’s breast. And then the games begin.
The people sit round a huge table at a staged feast, Miss World being gently fed as she kneels there. Ordinary eating goes awry, as people drop their faces into their food, talk with exaggerated movements while eating, smearing others with food, blowing it from their mouths onto their neighbours. One man appears to be about to pull out his penis from inside his pants, but it is a large animal tongue, which he extends onto the table, next to Miss World. As people vomit, the man proceeds to chop his ‘penis’ and cry out, throwing chunks to people who gnaw upon it. Then, surprisingly, Miss World takes out his small, real penis, holding the vulnerable piece of flesh, cradling it in her hand like a tiny animal, moving it to her face, over her lips and cheek.
The tender music from this last scene stays as the sounds of retching and the strange actions escalate. A man pees on the table, another interrupting the stream to take in some of the urine. People seem to “go off their heads”, as we put it in the colloquial, smashing plates of food over their skull, while Miss World, we see, is shedding a tear.
Then, on a ‘stage’ (which reminds us of a wrestling ring) people shit on plates, the ‘audience’ urging them on as they hold out their ‘achievement’ to others – to general congratulations. Amid the hilarity, Anna Prucnal’s voice comes in with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, not music we would ordinarily imagine accompanied by a “shitfest”, as Makavejev has called it. One of the excreting men takes up the song and it is sung in the original German as the gathering jumps up and down – with joy.
With the symphony itself, the film cuts to old footage of “Gymnastics for babies invented and demonstrated by Major Neumann-Neurode, Berlin”. As the major drills his babies, demonstrating their hygiene and strength, we see cute little beings with personalities and full of life. But we must go back to less pleasant sights at the commune, to Nazi babies now grown-up, trying to unmake their fascist-inherited bodies, purging themselves by their gorging, vomiting, urinating and defecating to the splendour of the “Ode to Joy”.
One of the commune men, now a big baby, lies on a mattress, still retching but being attended to by others, while more of the group sits around watching the scene. He throws up a little. They lightly slap his face, rock him, press down on his body, which they smear with shit. He is now mildly crying and is fed from a bottle of milk, then suckled by one of the women. As he is patted and looked after, Miss World sits huddled in her chair, alone. He pees and is powdered, like a big, plump baby, awkwardly moving his limbs before standing up, bowing and being applauded by the gathering.
There is a cut to the accordionist, and shaven-headed and nude people dance to the Internationale. Miss World, however, has not joined in. She sits with a man but on her own, powder in her hair and face, whimpering like a wounded animal. After an intervening scene, sweet and cruel from another narrative, the group stand around the accordionist (now playing an organ) and form a chaotic, improvised chorus as he again plays the Internationale. (4) They act cute, comic and strange and are, like in Lars Von Trier’s Idioterne (The Idiots, 1998), dancing like idiots – not rejecting the beautiful anthem, but certainly desanctifying it.
Going too Far
Many, including myself, were initially shocked and repelled by Makavejev’s most complex, explosive and assaulting film. In Sweet Movie, Eros and Thanatos are not concepts but forces. (5) Wilhelm Reich, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift, rather than Sigmund Freud, seem to inspire this never-safe journey, grounded in the senses, a journey which seems like it has land mines placed along the way. Sweet Movie is Makavejev’s furthest and most daring departure from traditional realist narrative. It is a mixture of humour, horror, eroticism, music, colour, defilement, excrement and murder. Once again, the film combines fiction and documentary, but this time the connections collide more harshly. As we have seen, it takes Miss World and the audience to the commune where the members participate in a “utopia of regression” (6). In twin narrative threads – deadly adventures in capitalism and totalitarianism – Miss World, prized for her abstinence and virginity, but rejected by her husband, Mr. Dollars (John Vernon), will eventually writhe and drown in a bath of chocolate while making a television commercial; meanwhile Anna Planeta (a blonde-haired Anna Prucnal), prostitute of the revolution, on a corpse-filled boat bearing the giant head of Karl Marx, makes love with Un Marin du Potemkin (A Sailor from the Potemkin, aka Luv Bakunin; Pierre Clémenti), in a bed of sugar, stabbing him with her dagger, his sacrificed red blood curling through the white grains. Whilst Luv is content to die a martyr’s death, like Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) in Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), most controversial for audiences today is Planeta’s bridal/maternal striptease for a group of boys enticed onto her barge by candy while Russian Orthodox liturgical music plays on the soundtrack.
Sweet Movie went too far. It marked the beginning of the director’s emigré career and controversy about its transgressions sounded something of a death-knell to that same career. Some former champions of his films deserted him. (7) Time magazine included the film as part of a “plague” of pornography afflicting the country and Richard Roud believed that the “streak of opportunistic vulgarity”, always there in Makavejev, “took over” in Sweet Movie. (8) The essential thing, as Julien Suaudeau wrote in 2001, is that, in his radical going beyond cultural taboos in this film, “the pursuit of a physical cinema finds its limit at the same time as it reaches its height” (9). While finding the commune sequence, to which we will return, a kind of “Pasolinian delirium” that he finds “frankly repelling” (10), Suaudeau still thinks Makavejev one of the great ‘modern’ filmmakers whose films now appear “more contemporary than ever” (11). The œuvre, which maintains its youthfulness and the freshness of its “explosive vitality”, reminds us that the cinema can be a place of both “anxious and joyful questioning” (12).
So, it is both paradoxical and fitting that in this film that went too far, fundamentals of the originality of Makavejev’s vision and method come to the fore. And, despite his reservations, Sweet Movie helps Suaudeau articulate these fundamentals:
With this cineaste of transgression, the imagination knows only two rules: Dyonisian pleasure in the poetic image, and absolute primacy of the material and the organic. So, in Sweet Movie, the symbolic and the literal are never dissociated. On the one hand, sugar is presented in a form that is purely organic, and in its multiple concrete representations, in the image of Descartes’ piece of wax. But on the other hand, Makavejev tells us “this is not sugar”, but a mirage of sweetness whose truth is in turn alienation (the consumer society) and a perverse and murderous ideological mystification (what the revolutionary ideal and the USSR became under Stalin). A veritable principle of montage, the passage between the literal and figurative registers can even take place from one shot to the next […] With Makavejev, poetic power is always expressed by the brutality of the relationship established between the symbol and the object to which it refers; the more immediate this relationship, the greater its stylistic impact. (13)
While the symbolic and the literal cannot be dissociated, Makavejev’s work makes clear some of the problems of the one realm swallowing up the other. During the hegemony of structuralist theory, I would suggest the object never completely disappeared behind the referent, but the importance of the relationship was often denied. The material, certainly organic, referent was frequently regarded as inadmissible.
At the same time, the distinction between the symbolic and the literal, metaphor and reality, is just as important as the relationship between them; lives can depend on our ability to make such distinctions.
In the text that appeared in the catalogue for the Balkan Film Retrospective in Venice, in April 2000, Makavejev began with something Slavoj Žižek had said:
For a long time the Balkans have been one of the privileged places for the investment of political fantasies. Gilles Deleuze said somewhere: “If you are caught in someone else’s dream, you are done for.” In ex-Yugoslavia we are done for not because our primitive dreams and myths prevent us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe, but because we pay with our own flesh and blood the price of being the stuff of which others’ dreams are made. (14)
Something Against Nature
After Sweet Movie’s release, Makavejev suggested to Robert Benayoun and Michel Ciment that it was impossible to invent more terrifying sequences than those contained in certain documentaries. One illustration of this principle is the footage, taken by the Nazis in 1943, of the exhumation of bodies in the Katyn Forest, Polish officers massacred in 1939 by Soviet soldiers. In Sweet Movie, the footage comes after Luv, full of life, is being bathed by Anna Planeta and another woman, Anna warning him:
Don’t stay here. This boat is full of corpses.
To which Luv replies: “It doesn’t matter. The whole world is full of corpses.”
After Luv, lathered in soap, pretends to expire, back into the bathwater, while listening to the most gentle music and song, we are exposed to bodies of men who did not die peaceful deaths. Their mouths are open as if in terror. Faces are blown out and skulls and bodies encrusted with mud. The camera pans across some bodies, others are propped up as if to sit, in a macabre fashion, facing the camera.
This material, “almost unbearable”, for Benayoun (15), is accompanied by an intertitle: “Let us think of these things always and speak of them never.” In a way, as Herbert Eagle says, it is a verbal text around which Sweet Movie revolves. (16) The words were written on 11 February 1944 to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign minister, by Sir Owen O’Malley, British Ambassador to Poland – and they are words with which the director cannot agree. After the war, Makavejev told Virginia Wright Wexman that Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Iosif Stalin decided never to speak of this murder of 10,000 men, whom the Germans show to have had lives and loved ones as they remove personal effects, pens, wallets, identity cards and photographs of smiling wives and children. (17) Later in the film, in preview of the many mass exhumations in history still to come, they conduct forensic investigations, measuring and cataloguing the human remains.
In its bluntness and brutality, weaving evidence through its fabric, Sweet Movie cries out for the need to confront and not forget such savage and cruel absurdities. Stanley Cavell’s ‘private’ title for Makavejev’s construction of Sweet Movie, Nevinost bez zatite (Innocence Unprotected, 1968) and WR: Mysteries of the Organism, is “the film of excavation”. This refers, Cavell says, to the director’s “digging to unearth buried layers of the psyche”, sensing that “these constructions have the feeling of reconstruction – as of something lost or broken”. (18) Cavell suggests that the “conscience of Sweet Movie is most hideously captured” in this sequence of literal excavation, and that for Makavejev,
that conspiracy of silence, call it mass hypocrisy, is a prescription for self-administered mass death. Mere film alone cannot prove who caused and buried the corpses in the Katyn Forest, but this film directly refuses the conspiracy of silence about it. (19)
The “corpse as protagonist”, says Lorenzo Codelli, “is an idée fixe of Makavejev”. (20) Corpses as entities have an ambiguous status; around the world, those not acknowledged and “laid to rest” are often perceived as having magical-dangerous power. Watching the exhumations in Sweet Movie, Makavejev said, can be like seeing “something from another world” (21). The decaying corpses are on their way to losing their identity, “halfway between identity and non-identity, halfway between people and earth” (22). And while the Katyn exhumations are there on film, there are many more killings, “invisible murders”, recorded nowhere:
And all these are unrecycled corpses, which is something against nature. Corpses have to moulder, to be eaten by worms, to turn into flowers and fruits or plain dust and we have to understand and share in this process. (23)
The moral violation is tied to the ecological one.
In WR, Makavejev had presented the ice-skater-zealot, Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic), as a kind of “marzipan reincarnation” of the real Lenin. Talking to John O’Hara of the preservation of Lenin, he said:
Lenin was very passionate, very alive, so can you do anything worse to him than to turn him into a beautiful corpse, like a piece of pink pastry? (24)
And yet …
There was another way of looking at the showing and visitation of Lenin, a contemporary manifestation of the old Cult of the Dead. In reference to the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, Edgardo Cozarinsky and Carlos Clarens write:
You have this ugly little constructivist building and the corpse inside, charged with enormous emotional power, right there in the center of a stage that’s not just the city but if you like the whole world. And then there is this permanent little stream of people, always moving, that ant line that acquires different shapes and always changes, kept alive and moving as it were by the still center toward which they direct themselves. So I offer you now another interpretation, not a critical one but an archetypical one: life always goes on even if you’re nailed down by one powerful corpse. That moving line is an image of life, it’s beautiful, and I think it tells something about the relationship between life and death. (25)
A Perilous Flow
In its conception, Sweet Movie was not to be so strong and heavy. The plan was for a comedy, precisely of healing and rebirth. In the first draft, Milena Dravić (having refound Milena’s head, sliced off at the end of WR) was to play a divided person, a kind of feminine version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but with three instalments of her personality. Milena Gold was to be a jetsetter devoted to pleasure; Milena Red, a nostalgic figure like someone out of Gorky, but with humour; and Milena Grey, a catatonic. Through participating in a series of experiences, they were to become one Milena, who is truly alive. (26)
When the film became an international co-production (funding came from French, Canadian and German sources), things got bigger (enough to include things like the Eiffel Tower and Niagara Falls!) and the scenario evolved. The idea of a heroine going on a picaresque journey, undergoing a series of trials and becoming catatonic until she is brought back to life in a series of small steps, remained – until the lead actress, Carole Laure, left the film. (27) When Polish theatre actress Anna Prucnal stepped into the picture, ironically, through force of circumstance, Makavejev created a structure more like that of his other films. He had two related stories that were separate and contrasting, but complementary and commenting on each other. Sweet Movie became stronger and more dynamic, Makavejev believed. It also became darker.
Makavejev saw Sweet Movie as much more satirical than his earlier films, more closely linked to what he had done in theatre pieces, like New Man at the Flower Market, and to what was there but sometimes in a latent form in the previous films. It was more allegorical and more related to science fiction. He also characterized the modes of the two main stories/journeys differently:
There is the satirical story of Miss World. That includes almost comic strip ideas about what American marriage is and how rich people live […] Then there’s the story about Anna Planeta, which is like a political fairy tale about a gingerbread house on the water […] (28)
While Miss World is repeatedly acted upon, Anna Planeta’s mode of sexuality enables “free flow of ambivalent meaning between everything her part of the narrative touches” (29). With its “comic-strip grotesqueries”, the Miss World story is “flattened and linear, and breaks down into the episodes of the journey upon which it is constructed” (30). The Anna Planeta story, on the other hand, “has older origins, in the fairy-tale and the romance, which are closer in narrative logic to dream than to chronicle” (31). So, when Jay Cocks said that the film was a “sort of live-action animated cartoon” (32), he gestured towards it generic difference while being sickened by it. Richard Corliss’ unappreciative Film Comment editorial on the film also has some accuracy about its formal and sensual/emotional uniqueness. He sees the sequences involving Anna Planeta and her victims as a subplot, as “an oblique commentary on the film’s ‘story’, a single crimson thread running through the crazy quilt of elephantine satire and genuine terror that comprise Sweet Movie’s narrative” (33). For him, what ends up on the screen is “a chaotic rough-cut of a film, one that opens up many political and sexual wounds but provides no sutures of coherence that would heal the wounds and tie up the film” (34). In response to a couple of suggestions he makes about what Makavejev might be saying, Corliss concludes that he might reply that “artistic anarchy begets formless filmmaking – which in turn begets editorials like these” (35). He seems to be left, and he is not alone among critics here, with a dissatisfied and hard-to-identify taste in his mouth, a visceral response that includes his own inability to encapsulate what is so wrong, along with his own troubled pleasure in the face of such a problematic film. We will return to the pleasure.
When problems and changes occurred in the shoot, taking him from his initial plan, Makavejev had decided to go with the flow, a strong and perilous one, as it turned out. Like Ingmar Bergman, Marsha Kinder suggested, at his own risk, he willingly went to the “edge of psychic peril, risking his own sanity and freedom and total rejection by his audience” (36). (The members of the commune’s eating habits alone, for example, “violate every manner known to civilized audiences” (37).) Elena Pinto Simon suggested to Makavejev that, while she thought Sweet Movie worked on a first viewing, the sequences where Anna Planeta stabs Luv Bakunin in the sugar and the commune sequence are so strong that they overwhelm you. “It takes time to sort them out – for the very strong visceral reactions to settle down.” (38) When she asked Makavejev how he wanted the film to work, his response was illuminating:
I had incredible crises during the editing because I was telling myself that I did not really want to put these things into the film. But at the same time, I was saying to myself: “That’s not true; you probably were not conscious of it, but given that the things you recorded came out in these shapes […]” My work was telling me that I had to keep certain sequences in. So at some point I stopped behaving like a responsible person in the sense of: “I want to say this; I want to do this” […] I understood there was a responsibility toward my work. Because if I, at that point, understood exactly what I was doing, I would have been too scared […] (39)
On this note, it is time to stop over at some of our first heroine’s stages in her journey that ends in death by chocolate. It was in its very first stage, at the Crazy Daisy TV Show where comparative gynæcological examination finds her to have the most beautiful, sweet “rosebud” that the judge, Dr. Mittelfinger (Don Arioli), has ever seen, that I felt an unexpected assault and revulsion on my own first viewing of the film.
Bigger Than Life
The credits for Innocence Unprotected had used purple and green silhouettes of the strongman/hero, Aleksić (Dragoljub Aleksić), along with drums and brass that prepared us for some of the playful, comic tone. In Sweet Movie, the credits contain their own combination of caricature and Eisensteinian typage. The melodic grind of fairground music is on the soundtrack as the names of the players and crew appear in bright colours, yellows, reds and oranges, hot pink, light and electric blues – over a still of what looks like Karl Marx with a tear affixed to his eye. The film is already “bigger than life” when Anna Prucnal, not as the blonde and dangerous Anna Planeta, but in her dark-haired, other incarnation shouts/sings in a harsh Slavic folk mode:
On the mountain top
I see something black.
Is it cowshit
Or my beloved?
And we are into the hyper-reality television show, after thirty years, more “realistic” now that we have gone way beyond 1984. The presenter, convincing and smooth, brings on P.D.C. de la Ceinture de Chasté (aka Mrs Martha Aplanalp; Jane Mallett), Chairman of the Chastity Belt Foundation and mother of Mr. Dollars, the richest bachelor in the world, ready to give up his bachelorhood and marry the winner of the contest, the “most cherished girl on the planet earth”. Martha is carried in by young bearded men with priestly robes. As one plays the bongos, the old lady bops to the drumming. Both her office and her presentation are jarring, grotesque. She wears a white, curled wig, long false eyelashes and nails, and pendulous, flashy earrings.
Since 1974, we have been treated to televangelists with similar incongruities between message and presentation. In some states in contemporary, re-evangelising America, new laws forbid the wearing of clothes that reveal a girl’s navel, or the crack between her buttocks, while Big Brother and you-deserve-a-make-over shows around the world can depict sex and the grossest of intimate surgery. The Crazy Daisy burlesque points to that strange meeting of health-and-hygiene-obsessed puritanism and the profit-driven society of consumption that I suspect exceeds Karl Marx’s, Max Weber’s, Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s most pessimistic dreams. “At Chastity Belt”, says Martha,
there are no metals, no elastic supports, no tranquillizers. Through the guidance of our sensational method, your own body kills the animal. We advocate simple triumph of the will. It is painless and ever so rewarding. No wild dreams. No – no peculiar behavior. Solid health and purposeful direction! […] A network of muscles forms the protective armour around the pelvic region. If not controlled and kept at bay, wild impulses will turn everyone into beastly animals, chaotic natural beings.
At this point, Dr. Mittelfinger rides in on a monocycle, introduced by our host as an “extraordinary man”, who has to his credit “the delivery of three army generals, four members of parliament, Eskimo sextuplets, uh … and of course many, many more people … and women”. Some specimens of these ‘others’ are examined on an ornate-looking contraption, a kind of cross between an antique dentist chair, a birthing chair and an invention for a torture chamber. (There is, however, a sweet rose painted on its side. The rose is also on Mr. Dollars’ honeymoon helicopter and is a motif that runs through the film.)
Miss Southern Rhodesia, feeling tickled, is interviewed during her examination. Miss Congo rubs Mittelfinger’s face and beard with her bejewelled feet, while he discourses about hymens. And, in a nice, hearty joke, the chunky Miss Yugoslavia pushes the presenter and attendant to the ground, and hits Mittelfinger on the head, whirling him above her in a wrestling hold and placing him, firmly, in the specimens’ chair. As the bongos play, Miss Canada, soon to be judged Miss World, looks on through parted gold streamers behind the set. Throughout Sweet Movie, we will see her in this semi-hiding, crouching position, peeking in on the action. But before cutting to her shocking honeymoon, after winning and being the prize, the film cuts to a boat, where Anna Planeta stands at the helm above a giant, papier mâché head of Marx, the strands of his beard trailing through the water.
After the shock and exaggeration of the television contest sequence, it is a relief to watch a bridge gently open for the boat, to see it glide across the water to the flow of an old anarchist song. The boat is called Survival and washing hangs on lines strung across the deck. It looks inhabited, lived in, and Anna, in command, is greeted by a playful young sailor riding his bike alongside the canal, tipping his cap to her as he stands on another bridge ahead. We are in Amsterdam, or perhaps in a fairytale.
Makavejev cuts to Niagara Falls, with Mr. Dollars and his new bride, in his helicopter surveying his intended acquisition, his “biggest undertaking in landscape architecture”:
I’m gonna buy it from the Canadian Government. I will renovate it, redecorate it. Get rid of the water, turn off the falls. […] I’m gonna install an electric, synthetic, laser moving image in livin’ color. In livin’ color, honey! Yeah. And we’re gonna have a huge quadraphonic sound system. Yeah! Of the royal waters. Yeah! We’re gonna have the best sight and sound system available. Yeah. Unaffected by weather conditions […] My empire. Milk for the entire country!
Just before, when Mr. Dollars had showed his bride his “hand-carved” pipe with a small head of Lenin on the bowl, he had told her:
That’s Karl. Karl Marx. Yeah. He’s the guy that shot the Russian czar. Yeah. Shot him dead, right in the head. Yeah. That started World War I, honey. Yeah!
Thirty years later, it would be comforting if this wild caricature of acquisition and ignorance were further from our own reality.
At the family mansion, Martha, the family minister and the musicians, welcome the newlyweds. (The house, like the corpses to come, is wrapped in plastic, clean but not bio-degradable.) Mr. Dollars makes a ridiculous speech on money, sex, sanitation and waste (all closely tied to marriage), and the musicians, with guitars and fiddles, continue to play their delightful “hillbilly” music. After a brief cut back to the boat and our sailor’s pursuit of it, we come back to one of Sweet Movie’s most shocking and, for Miss World, traumatising scenes.
Mr. Dollars undresses with the help of one of his black servants, down to his Texan hat, black socks and boxer shorts with cherries on them. Beautiful Miss World, with her slender body, long, dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes, holds a wreath of artificial flowers with bright red lights substituting for roses. A cardboard Statue of Liberty stands behind the giant marriage bed, with its purple net, the floor before it decorated with the inevitable Makavejev rug, a large white bearskin, complete with head. (Part of his “painting of American wealth”, Mr. Dollars’ house was, in fact, the house of his Canadian co-producer, the enormous circular bed a replica of his. (40))
Teeth and mouth cleaned, after rubbing himself down with disinfectant, Mr. Dollars uncovers his wife except for the ‘flowers’ over her crutch and, instead of sexual foreplay, proceeds to wipe her down, cleaning a leg at a time, her face, back and arms, her breasts and stomach, spitting and wiping a tiny missed spot on her belly, as a parent would with a child. But worse is to come. He takes off his pants to reveal an erect, golden penis – quite a variation on Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964)! As Miss World screams, we hear the mandolins that the musicians are playing outside, swaying to the rhythm, and Mr. Dollars pees on his bride in a strong golden stream. In what Susan Dermody, Bruce Jenkins and John Mandelberg call a “piss-line match cut”, Sweet Movie briefly looks in on Niagara Falls. (41) When we cut back to Miss World with her mother-in-law and minder, for mentioning the word “alimony”, she is pushed backward, over the stooped old lady’s back, into the family pool, pushed under again and again as she rises to the surface. Drenched clothes clinging to her body from the waist down, she looks like a mermaid as she is carried off over the shoulder of another black attendant, Jeremiah Muscle (Roy Callender). Muscle takes her to his home in a giant milk bottle (actually found on top of a factory in Montréal).
After a short sojourn in the bottle, Jeremiah packs Miss World in a suitcase and takes her to the airport, to despatch her to Paris. At the check-in, when the suitcase weighs so much, he tells the hostess he has a lot of books in there. He is taking a refresher course in philosophy and the reading is heavy: “Marcuse, Supek, Vranicki, Sartre.” To the strains of what sounds like early Bob Dylan, with harmonica, fiddle and spoons, we watch the moving bag go down and along the luggage chutes, maybe thinking, a little, of Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1934). Once in Paris, emerged from the bag, Miss World will fall in love with the epitome of handsome, flashy masculinity, El Macho (Sami Frey).
We left our sailor, Luv, pursuing Anna on her boat, making signs to hitch a ride with her. With the boat comes the film’s strange theme song:
Is there life on the earth?
Is there life after birth?
And with this question asked (42), the Survival glides through the water with Potemkin, as Anna calls him, full of life and dying to get aboard.
On shore, our young Potemkin, whose joyous, youthful vitality seems limitless right to the moment he expires, playfully pees into the water, pointing his stream upward as if to Anna. (43) Magically, he is on board the ship and close to Anna, whose face has something sharp about it, her large mouth and jagged long fringe adding to a harsh sexiness:
Hey, Potemkin! Aren’t you from that famous revolution that failed? I mean, the one in 1905.
Just as fantastically, impossibly, she herself has fought in the Spanish Civil War. With her banter, Anna climbs up her ladder, spread-legged and backwards, and she and Luv crudely and lustily have sex as citizens cheer on from the fences beside the banks. Soon, very sweetly, unaccompanied by music, the lovers sing to one another the beautiful political-romantic song:
Avanti popolo alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa
Avanti popolo alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa la trionfera
Bandiera rossa la trionfera
Bandiera rossa la trionfera
Bandiera rossa la trionfera
E viva il communismo e la liberta!
Forward, people, to battle
The red flag, the red flag
Forward, people, to battle
The red flag will triumph
The red flag will triumph
The red flag will triumph
The red flag will triumph
Long live communism and freedom!
As they stand and the tempo accelerates, as we watch the boat come through another opening bridge, a full-blown, Mitch Miller-type chorus takes over and amplifies the song. But despite all this sweetness and energy, Luv – and we the audience – have been warned that this adventure cannot end well.
“Where does this boat go?”, Luv had asked Anna.
“To the end”, she replied.
“Where?”, the sailor continued.
“To the bottom!”, admits Anna.
After Luv pretends to die in the bath, and we have seen the first of the Katyn Forest sequences, Makavejev has what is for me one of the film’s most beautiful and ambiguous scenes. As the ‘Katyn’ music (composed by Manos Hadjidakis) stays on the soundtrack, and Maria Katira begins to sing, the camera cuts to a red, bubbling syrup poured on a creamy pancake surface that resembles a cracked plain. The text referring to the massacre is superimposed over a close-up of the liquid, with its tiny ‘volcanic’ eruptions. Along with the “sensual, non-verbal, magical” cinema Makavejev sought, which “physically involved the spectator and could make him lose his sense of gravity” (44), we are in Jean Epstein territory here, where unexpected transformations, filmic revelations, happen before our eyes while all our senses and emotions have been awakened. Epstein’s definition of film’s “fluid universe” is most fitting (we should read ‘cinema’ where he wrote ‘cinematograph’):
Through its construction, in an innate and ineluctable fashion, the cinematograph presents the universe as a perpetual and completely mobile continuity, much more […] fluid and more agile than directly sensed continuity […] life comes and goes through matter, disappears, reappears as vegetable where it was believed to be mineral, animal where it was believed to be vegetable and human; nothing separates matter and spirit […] a profound identity flows between beginning and end, between cause and effect […] the cinematograph possesses the power of universal transmutations. (45)
It turns out that we see some reflection, movement, over the raspberry-red substance and we cut to hands sculpting a rose, perhaps from red wax, perhaps from sugar paste. We think of the rose on the gynæcological examination chairs and on Mr. Dollars’ helicopter, but it is also more – it is a memorial rose for the men whose blood was so coldly spilled in the forest.
When Luv rises back to life from his pretend death in the tub, he jumps to the hanging bed of sugar in the dungeon of Anna’s boat, with its garlands of sweets dangling down. Eating the sugar, his body is encrusted with it. His face, direct to camera, recalls the mud-coated remains of the Poles as he opens his mouth, pokes out his tongue, shows his teeth and looks through the encrusted eye-holes. There is no sound for this memorial moment, but, right at the end, mariachi music begins to play on the soundtrack and it is time for Miss World to emerge from her bag-cocoon and become joined, literally, to El Macho.
As “Is there life on the earth?” plays once again on the soundtrack, we discover Miss World is on the top of El Macho’s and his musicians’ van. Her finger pokes out of the suitcase, feeling round like a tiny animal reconnoitring. More fingers, a shot of her eye, then her head and neck appear as she looks about, curious. We are heading along the Champs Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe. As her bag is carried to the Eiffel Tower, we feel truly in the land of Entr’acte (René Clair, 1924), Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929) and Jean Painlevé’s surrealistic creature-worlds.
El Macho, beautiful, dark and gaudy, is told by his television director (George Melly) to “look terribly Mexican”, as he sings (in Spanish) of sufferings and massacres: “violence”, “blood” and “carnage” intoxicate him, make him want more. “Revolt” is the drug of this “wild stallion” that “cannot be tamed”, whose death will unleash many more just like him.
As he lip synchs badly, strutting his body in erotic exaggeration, among his adoring groupies are visiting Italian nuns. But he stops in his tracks when he sees Miss World, who in turn is entranced, her sexual appetite awakened.
“You are so beautiful!”, says she, no longer cowering and half-hidden.
“I know”, says el Macho, giving the same answer Han Solo gave Princess Leia, six years later in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), when she tells him she loves him.
Miss World does not want to arrange a rendez-vous, but to have him there and then, and they couple under his cape, tourists walking around them, the Tower elevators doing their own hard work, loud on the soundtrack. (The scene is a parallel to Anna Planeta and Luv’s outdoor coupling before an audience.) While the nuns are wanting a photograph (with the Sacré Coeur in the same shot!), the couple, like dogs, get stuck together and are taken to the bench-top of the restaurant kitchen where sumptuous trays of food are passed over the pair. They are finally separated. El Macho, once again signs an autograph and mimes – this time without the pretence of the musicians. Then, inexplicably, standing against the kitchen wall, he faces Miss World and cries, tears streaming from his rich, glittering eyes, while she takes the eggs that are a substance of fertility and sharing in Ljubavni slcuaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T (The Switchboard Operator, 1967) and WR, and cracks and smears them one after another over her head and face, wasting them and herself.
With his politically engaged, “masochistic manifesto”, as Beverle Houston and Marsha Kinder call it, El Macho is surely related to other pop radicals, the passionate young men of the 1960s who proclaimed revolution (described so well and critically in Michel Delahaye’s review of Makavejev’s first feature, Covke nije tica (Man is not a Bird, 1965)) (46), and the poetic revolt of the earlier surrealists. With his hunger for revolt, his vanity and his dream of endless violent intensity, of dying so as more to live, El Macho is also the comic incarnation of many dead men through history, who anticipate death as something higher and better than this world. We will come to Luv Bakunin and his martyr’s death in a while, but one of Wilhelm Reich’s encapsulations is well worth remembering here: “Masochism flourishes like a weed in the form of the diverse patriarchal religions, as ideology and practice, smothering every natural claim to life.” (47)
In this film that is low on dialogue, for which recounting its “narrative” risks badly distorting its taste, it is the sequences with practically no dialogue that have been most controversial. As several writers have noted, it is not the Katyn footage of formerly live human beings massacred and unearthed that upset many people, but the sequences Makavejev willingly staged: the commune scene in the Western Capitalist strand, where, in the words of Jay Cocks, the “inmates perform assorted atrocities with food” (48); and the seduction of the four boys in the Revolutionary Communist strand, after they are lured onto Anna Planeta’s boat with skeins of lollypops and the sweets of her body. (49)
As the children enter her queendom, garlands of sweets hang over her giant bed of sugar. Befitting the links to fairytale, the hold of the boat is also a little like a dark-lit house of horrors. Daniel J. Goulding noted that, in her impassioned speech in WR, Milena accused Vladimir Ilyich of serving up “a bunch of lies”, and called his revolution “a toy balloon […] a petty lie dressed up as a great historical truth”. In Sweet Movie, he rightly suggests, “these verbal accusations are given greater satiric and parodic visual amplification”, the Survival being a “cross between a demented good ship lollipop and a little shop of Communist horrors, [carrying] in its hold the repressed secrets and crimes of the revolution’s faded martyrs and assassins” (50).
Like Luv, one of the boys eats straight from the sugar, as the camera pans across the trays of assorted sweets, an orange cat miaowing beside them. A demented Anna makes her entrance, looking grotesque and alluring at the same time in her dishevelled and scant lacy bridal garments. For her seduction ritual, the Orthodox mass comes on the soundtrack and the camera pans across the word “Survival” on the side of the boat, the motto of a revolution gone mad that must cannibalise its own children to keep going.
Anna starts her striptease, removing her gloves, stroking the face of one of the boys, at ease as he rocks in her chair, matter-of-factly chewing candy. Another looks up at her, also chewing, but more animated and amused as she continues her act, laying her apron over his head. He leans on a big tiger head (to match the bear in Mr. Dollars’ bedroom) as Anna hovers over him and the camera surveys the sweets, the walls decorated with Stalin, Lev Trotsky, Marlon Brando, the Mamas and the Poppas – icons, like the Christ figure that hangs from the wall. Anna takes off her stockings and ties them around boys’ necks, unzips the impassive boy’s fly. He wears her delicate glove on one hand, as does another boy who helps her further undress. The more animated, playful child laughs, his young cheek flushed – this is a true play at seduction, as she wraps her scantily clothed, tall-slender body about him. “You can fuck me if you are lucky, Mister Sugar!”, she whispers loudly, and he pulls the bunk’s curtain across, his child-size feet popping up into the bunk.
Robert Benayoun is one of the rare writers who find this “perhaps the most beautiful sequence in the film”, “a maternal striptease of serene sensuality”. (51) In fact, Makavejev’s thinking about his favoured cinema is strongly linked to his convictions about childhood, the life of the early human being. As he put it to Benayoun and Ciment:
Matter is used to express things that cannot be said in words. It goes back to our prenatal experience, and the first year of our life. Before we start to talk, for twenty-one months we live an active sensual life, and these are perhaps the most important of our existence. And in the cinema, I […] try to express these memories from a deep-seated past. It is a real challenge. (52)
Reich was preoccupied with the way children’s sexuality, their body awareness, was turned against them in authoritarian patriarchal families, and became part of a potentially fascist character armour. But despite WR’s focus on Reich, because it was such an immense and complex subject, Makavejev had decided not to speak of child sexuality in that film. Not in the original script of Sweet Movie, the child seduction scene developed during filming. (53) Houston and Kinder write:
The scene is the peak of ‘outrage’ in the counterculture plot as the infantile behaviour of the commune scene was in the other; both challenge some of the audience’s most deeply held taboos […] But this treatment of child sexuality is to be sharply distinguished from exploitive pornography, especially when viewed in the context of sexual politics as defined by Reich, who advocated liberation from patriarchal dominance for children as well as for women […] It is part of Makavejev’s explicit attack on the failure of the revolution that it never created the slightest deviation from the Russians’ puritanical, Tsarist orthodoxy in which child sexuality indicated moral breakdown, rather than movement toward a freer human condition. The ambiguity is essential: while Makavejev displays the potential positive value of child sexuality, he nevertheless exposes Anna as one who exploits it […] (54)
Once again linking the director’s convictions and methods, Kinder and Houston suggest that the Reichian influence informed not only Makavejev’s ideas, but also “his anarchic tone and collage structure” (55). Cavell makes the related observation that the “nature or natures of autonomy is something Makavejev’s procedures as a film maker depend upon and reflect upon” (56). His own discussion of the children’s seduction sequence begins with the principle that we must grant and acknowledge the autonomy of children.
The scene of “private striptease”, writes Cavell, forms the most difficult passage, “from the perspective of ordinary moral sensibility” of this “difficult film”. (57) The “primary direction or object of moral outrage here”, he says, “is the reverse of what it is in the commune sequence”. (58) In the latter, we wonder what Makavejev’s justification is for subjecting his audience to the scenes. In the seduction of the children, however,
both actors and audience are being subjected to something that requires justification, but one’s first concern is for the actors, I mean the children […] The scene is […] a brilliant and inescapable declaration of a fact essential to anything I have recognized as a movie I have cared about – that it contains projections of (photographic displacements of) real human beings, human beings subjected to the interrogations and the imposing transformations of the camera. But is the declaration of this fact sufficient justification for subjecting just these real young male human beings to exactly these ways of this particular older woman’s presenting herself to them? She really is taking off her stocking for this boy; really placing her naked leg over his shoulder, her pubic hair tufting beyond the edges of the strip of the fabric hanging loosely down her front; she really is unzipping his fly… No serious artist could have risked this sequence who did not know in his or her bones that eleven- or twelve-year-old boys have already been seduced over and over and more intractably than any way in which this nice lady will affect them in providing them and herself for the camera. (59)
Cavell goes on, and his point in relation to young human beings, adult responsibility, and the setting of limits, is crucial:
The artist knows this not in a spirit which would say that a little more seduction won’t hurt but knows it out of a conviction that the process of going through these gestures – with friendly preparation and with explicit delimitations, for the comprehensible purpose of producing the communication in these matters for a film – is, on the contrary, potentially therapeutic. (60)
I would suggest that an “eyes off” attitude towards children and their sexuality, pretending that it does not exist for them or for us, is as problematic as Sir Owen O’Malley’s motto in regard to the Katyn massacres, “Let us think of these things and speak of them never.” Such pretence has consequences. Child sexuality becomes a repressed and dirty secret, its consequences pathological. While children around the world are bought and sold, abused in a variety of ways, including sexually, and while the air they breathe, the food they eat and the substances in their life-world are filled with toxins for some people’s profit, in the ‘liberal’ West the solution to child sexual abuse is now to view each adult as a potential molester, each child as a potential victim – a twisted acknowledgement of the forces of attraction. Except for parents who ‘own’ them, adults dealing with the young must be screened and surveyed; an ‘unmotivated’ look or touch can bring suspicion. Rationalization processes become ever more complete and the ‘legislation’ of coldness is well underway.
Max Weber rightly noted that the protestant individual left the monastery, but the monastery was now in him. In his reading of Sweet Movie, Cavell quotes Karl Marx on the latter point:
[I]t was no longer a question of the layman’s struggle with the priest outside of him, but of his struggle with his own inner priest, his priestly nature. And if the Protestant transformation of the German laity into priests emancipated the lay popes – the princes together with their clergy, the privileged and the philistines – so the philosophical transformation of the priestly Germans into men will emancipate the people. (61)
On just these notes, we must go back to the commune, the obscene feast and ‘shitfest’, to consider the group’s attempts to undo the terror that has blocked their bodies and minds.
To the question of whether Sweet Movie was less ‘political’ than WR, where the strong ‘anti-Stalinist’ point of view was made evident through the montage, Makavejev insisted that a sequence like the commune one was indeed political. His criticism was not directed “specifically against this or that monster”, but against authoritarianism. (62) As he said to Pinto Simon,
As soon as they start playing with the food, you understand that they are doing something that is highly unacceptable […] You are not supposed to throw up. Whatever you eat, you have to digest. So even if you get the most poisonous ingredients – food, ideology, anything that is against what your being represents – you are not supposed to throw up […] You are supposed to digest, even at the expense of some part of yourself […] (63)
As he told other interviewers, he was attracted to the Therapy Commune as they were the only alternative community he met that was “not heavily into drugs” (64). They normally lived on a farm outside of Vienna, about fifty people with pigs, cows and hens, but were brought to Paris for the shoot. Babies were brought up communally.
Interestingly, while the commune members broke the taboo in relation to food, after Makavejev had an actor ‘castrate’ himself by chopping up a huge animal tongue, it was Laure herself, on her own initiative, who “very kindly, for her part, broke the taboo of direct communication with the man’s penis” (65).
Though the latter scene is gentle, overall the “shocking Rabelaisian type orgy”, Donald Theall notes, is one of “the apparently least sweet scenes” in the film. (66) Here style and substance are one. Bart Testa suggests that the commune’s setting appears “curiously medieval”, that the shooting style “shifts from a fixed-camera high-key brazenness to an almost gloomy, hand-held cinéma-vérité style” (67). “Actually”, says Testa,
the film grinds to a halt there, for the documentary force of the passage, which is disproportionately long and extremely powerful in its vulgarity and humanity, collapses this parallel narrative under its spectacle. The patently artificial sections before this are just cartoons; this section is relentlessly brutal and even its theatricalism […] bluntly violates taboos. (68)
Testa’s comments are part of an argument that Makavejev transgressed the decorum of the art film (and thereby lost a certain audience and the support of humanist critics such as Robin Wood). The notion of ‘progressive’ film culture, and non ‘commercial’ film movements of the 1950s and 1960s were bound up, Testa suggests, with the notion of critique. And critique
in the sense used by those writing ambitiously on modern film was conceived within the setting of a humanist modernism rooted in Enlightenment critiques of doctrine and ideology. Moreover the film movement came to be seen as always coincident with notions of authorship, expressivity, organicity, political and social critique and a variety of realisms both naïve and critical. (69)
If WR transgressed some of the decorum of the art film, Sweet Movie went even further in sinning against its basic critical values. “Its cruel humour, extreme sexuality, heterogeneous stylistics and often awkward bluntness constitute an open provocation against these critical values” (70).
Benayoun suggested there was “a terrorism of style” (71) here that had not been seen before. In the end, the director had made a work of “poetic automatism” (72), his inspirations far from any intentional or deliberate discourse. And John Gianvito affirms this idea – that this film’s “dialectical attack” is “more grounded in the sensorial than the cerebral”:
[T]he outrageous onslaught of unusual images and behaviour in Sweet Movie sucks you in, fixes you to the screen, feeding you […] In the process of watching Sweet Movie the relationship one is having to what is taking place on the screen is constantly being subverted. Practically every new sequence provokes a readjustment. Just how is one to take what’s going on? And what’s going on is absolutely unpredictable. There is nothing here that a veteran screenwriter could anticipate […] Virtually every sequence is deftly built to pivot in emotionally unexpected ways leaving most viewers unprepared and defenseless in its wake and consequently more open to ingest ‘unprocessed’ material. (73)
You can move from a moment of comfortable laughter, notes Gianvito, to have it topped by something that disturbs you: “You gag on the gag.” (74)
With his customary humour, Makavejev suggested to Cozarinsky and Clarens that perhaps if he had warned people from the start: “this is a light comedy later changing into a political thriller and horror movie – then perhaps critics might decide it’s ‘an experiment in style’ and accept a shifting tone” (75). But the problem, as he knew, went far deeper. Many people felt “attacked” by the commune scenes which strongly implicate bodily functions, by the breakdown of boundaries between solids and liquids, inside and outside, cultural and biological – a breakdown that is unapologetically and aggressively displayed/performed here.
Once again, Cavell’s observations are apt. The commune footage, for him, is Sweet Movie’s best-remembered feature. Here
individuals who claim to witness the absolute bondage in which social existence has secured them band together to permit one another something you might see as absolute freedom […] The members of the commune go further than one might have expected to see in turning themselves inside out. They regress to the condition of birth, as if to give birth to themselves from their otherwise dead bodies, the group assisting as anagogic midwives, oiling, wiping, and powdering their huge, bouncing babies and praising their performances of the natural functions of living things […] (76)
When Albert Camus wrote La Peste (The Plague), says Cavell, he claimed that the only power to rid us of plagues is ordinary decency. Through the commune, however, Makavejev suggests “that our strategy against emotional plague will have to be or to include indecency” (77). (Cavell notes that Camus’ L’Homme révolté “speaks of every form of revolt save, apparently, the one Makavejev takes as fundamental, physiological revolt” (78).) The sequences in the commune
are among other things, revolting. Placed in general adjacency with the sequence of the Katyn massacre, which is also revolting, we are asked to ask ourselves what we are revolted by […] If rotting corpses make us want to vomit, why at the same time do live bodies insisting on their vitality? But the members of the commune themselves display images of revulsion, as if to vomit up the snakes and swords and fire the world forces down our throats. It is on this understanding that the sequence strikes me as one of innocence – the exact reverse of the unredeemable acts of tyrants, under whatever banner. (79)
When Robert Hatch says that at the commune “breast-feeding is a general indulgence”, there is something deeply visceral, emotional and irrational in his exaggeration, which is surely not just rhetorical. (80) Before Momma Communa (outrageously) suckled Miss World, when she was feeding her baby, we were already exposed to something not often seen in (‘civilized’) public. The camera did not turn away from the baby withdrawing itself from her nipple, the elongated nipple looking something like a dagger – or a penis. In one way, this is like “matter out of place” (81). The acts of nourishment and nurture have a discomfiting edge to them, an unseemliness, ‘indecency’, even. Whatever else is going on with us here, Reich’s “functional identity”, based on “the dialectical principle of unity in diversity”, is at work, as Houston and Kinder describe it:
For Reich, all opposites, all apparent contradictions, are actually expressions of the same base or diverse applications of the same source. For example, the vagina taking the penis is functionally identical to the baby sucking the nipple. In Sweet Movie, this identity is realized in the commune scene where the Capitalist heroine tenderly rubs a man’s cock against her face to the same lullaby music by which she sucked a black woman’s nipple, suggesting that nursing shapes our sexual tastes. (82)
The ‘innocence’ Cavell speaks of should not be taken as something simple and tame, to do with lack of experience. It is a Blakean kind of innocence: intense, fulsome, complex and opposed to anything like a cynical and sour experience. Theall gestures toward this in his own encapsulation:
While there will be ongoing debate as to whether Makavejev’s shocking scenes in the commune, where the camera is a participant observer, work or not, their affinities with [Georges] Bataille’s understanding of the erotic and the intensity of communication accomplished by his transgressive camera are indisputable and particularly relevant to the development of communication about the contradictions within desire. (83)
Though I can never recapture my own shock and revulsion by these scenes, I suspect it had something to do with terror, something that in one way or another runs through Sweet Movie. Makavejev told John O’Hara that the commune members got into
real regression, but with real mutual support. They are very conscious of what they are going through, and are very often discovering things from their childhood. They experience the basic stresses of facing their mother or father, of reaching their own terror. This gets rid of the main blocks, because terror is a block. (84)
This is nicely in keeping with Cavell’s articulations, including the possibility of “the chance for a cleansing revulsion”, of purging ourselves “by living rather than by killing”. And I am completely with Makavejev and Cavell here.
Nonetheless, there is something disturbing about the aggression brought out in the sequence, the aggression that is regression, the reaching of “the last fortress” (85) that Otto Muehl is trying to break. For the audience, not being actual participants, there is perhaps a feeling of watching on helplessly at a difficult birth without experiencing first-hand the peak of pain and ecstasy of bringing a new being into the world. Shaved heads and nude bodies may always conjure up Auschwitz for many of us, especially in this film, since we have just watched unearthings of victims of a war massacre. But perhaps more than this, in this spectacle that we are (as if) locked into, the regressing participants clearly do not literally become babies but infantile adults. With their bodies seeming to take on their own wills, their bald heads, uncoordinated movements, lack of boundaries and protocols with bodily substances, at least as much as they suggest adults undertaking a certain kind of liberation, they conjure up the disturbed, the sick and the dying – humans who are losing the controls they struggle to keep. In this liminal rite of passage, their carnal humus is revealed. (86) Much of the sequence evokes the unnerving, even fearful dimension of the truth of Epstein’s fluid universe of transformations, to which I will return when discussing Miss World’s sweet death. In Sweet Movie’s next scene, however, with Luv Bakunin’s martyr’s death, another kind of sweetness and terror are involved.
While Luv and Anna’s lovemaking has very little dialogue, Anna tells him again and again that she and the sugar are dangerous. “All the ones I loved have died”, she has said, as she stands in front of a poster of Lenin. As they make love in the sugar, and she licks the sailor’s coated skin, Léonide the mouse crawls through her hair, across her skin and between the folds of their bodies, in and out of the sugar. It is like we are watching the limbs of trees and small animals in sand dunes, the movements making new shapes, the perspective changing. (87) In a delightful touch, the lovers sit and enjoy post-coital coffee, stirring sugar into the hot liquid as Anna will soon stir Luv’s warm blood into the cold sugar. Noting the superb detail of Luv and Anna having coffee together in the sugar bed, Benayoun suggested that, independently of the beauty of this rhetorical image, it reminds us of Bugs Bunny eating the carrots in Hiawatha the Indian’s hare soup – in which Bugs himself is the main ingredient. (88)
Anna’s sugar-frosted body sits astride Luv and, when she goes down on his neck and bites and draws blood, he says it is good, telling her to go on. Anna bites the other side, the syrupy red blood dripping onto his body. And as he assents to his own death for the carnivorous revolution, jealous, as he tells Anna, when Vakulinchuk was killed, she searches for the knife as he speaks. When she stabs him, a pool of blood bubbles up in the sugar, matching the liquid from which the red rose had earlier been made. Luv looks down at the red pool and gasps and laughs, before dying open-mouthed, like some of the Katyn soldiers. Confirming him as a true heir to that “primal hero-victim of the revolution” (89), the voice-over repeats the line, “I was so jealous when Vakulinchuk was killed”. (For this deed, Karl Marx on the prow will weep, as the tear of water in a plastic bag is attached to his eye.)
Luv Bakunin, as I have mentioned repeatedly, is full of life, though he embraces a martyr’s death. Makavejev talked to Benayoun and Ciment about the germs of self-destruction that Luv carried within him which related directly to the real Mikhail Bakunin, who argued that the will to destruction was also creative:
I think that this element of anarchist philosophy is dubious. These self-destructive elements we find in revolutionary movements, that we have been able to observe around us, that are the result of unresolved problems, lead to catastrophic distortions. The Moscow Trials, whose victims denounced themselves, were also the product of self-destruction for the Cause. In spite of all my love for the individual and his vitality, despite my respect for his life, his death, and his integrity, I wanted to indicate the reservations he inspired in me. (90)
After the fall of the Communist alternative, major challenges to Mr Dollars’ empire continue to come in destructive and death-embracing forms – still authoritarian, masculinist and willing to sacrifice (in) this world for a paradise to come.
A Fierce Kind of Pleasure
As Anna is taken from her boat by police, sirens blare and, amid the chaos, we see the young boys’ bodies wrapped in plastic on the grassy shore. The gentle music associated with the Katyn footage comes on the soundtrack and we see Luv, too, his corpse laid out on the bank. Then, as the young boys, miraculously alive, watch on from a bridge at the corpses across the way, we hear a cameraman admaker encouraging the narcissism of Miss World:
Darling, this is going to be the highlight of your career. From now on, when people eat chocolate – I mean, the brand we advertise – they will not feel the same. I want them to feel as if they’re eating you!
In the middle of the speech, we cut to Luv, and the camera pans down his corpse from head to feet. We then see Miss World’s live feet and legs as she opens her gown to step nude into a vat of chocolate as the cameraman continues with his filming and patter. Next we have what I consider one of the most beautiful sequences on film as Miss World/Carole Laure moves in the chocolate, beautifully, sensuously and without inhibition, spreading her legs wide, bathing and writhing, making of her beautiful young body poetry in motion. As Romanian pipes play on the soundtrack, the chocolate-mud slurps rhythmically.
Once again, Epstein and his fluid universe of metamorphoses comes to mind. While in the following passage he is referring to the slowing down of time on film, we need not limit what he says to the phenomenon of slow-motion:
[H]uman appearance finds itself deprived, in good part, of its spirituality. Thought is extinguished from the glance […] In gestures, awkwardness – a sign of will, the price of liberty – disappears, absorbed by the infallible grace of animal instinct. The whole of man is no more than a being of smooth muscles, swimming in a dense environment, where deep currents still carry along this clear descendant of ancient marine animal life, of the mother waters […] Slowed down still more, every living substance returns to its fundamental viscosity, lets its basic colloidal nature rise to its surface. (91)
Miss World, like Luv, seems to find her martyrdom pleasurable. (92) As she performs her splendid physicality, we realise we are truly in a magical universe as Luv, alive and smiling, looks in on her through a broken window. (For a brief moment, it is a little like she smiles to this character resurrected from the other story.) But then she starts to flounder, makes animal noises, and we see just a portion of her face, a brown eye staring out of the chocolate. Her face and body are subsumed by the liquid, become one with it. “Let everything be known and let everything be clean”, says Martha Aplanalp, suddenly returning to the story, and a strong animal roar is heard on the soundtrack. There is now only sluggish movement in the chocolate, breathing noises, a mouth closing, to die in the vat. Miss World, says Benayoun nicely, “swallows the Western world to the point of melting into it” (93).
As we cut to the Katyn earth pits giving up their yield to the Germans, Martha’s voice comes on the soundtrack, saying, “Our boys did quite a job.” We cut back to the young boys in their bags and the screen is tinted blue as in the Katyn footage. The children start stirring, one after the other. The train crossing a bridge in the background whistles and the Katyn music, finally sung by a children’s choir, comes onto the soundtrack as the most playful seduced boy looks to the camera. Colour, gold in particular, seeps into the still image.
While Miss World is enlivened, “animated, by the condition of exhibition” before the camera, Cavell suggests that her inability to participate
is shown as an inability to be nourished. A life-long force-fed consumer, she becomes anorexic; and she swiftly winds up as a piece of chocolate’ […] As she writhes and then drowns in the vat of chocolate-mud-excrement, like an isolated female wrestler, we can see at last, though filtered through a film of chocolate, a sweet movie, the genitals denied our sight when she was first introduced to us. She is again food for the hungry movie camera, a responsibility accepted by Makavejev as his depicted cameraman says an excited ‘Beautiful!’ in response to her dying. And the insatiable and deadly voyeurism of the camera is then more amply declared by alluding – in an extreme close-up of this woman’s profile as her head touches the floor of the vat and we see one eye caught open by death – to the shower murder of Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960]. (94)
Perceptive and acknowledging as this is on the nature of the sweet movie at last revealed, its thrust still goes against the splendour of the scene as a whole. Watching this woman-creature’s body as it enjoys and displays its (ephemeral) beauty, I doubt most of us are thinking about excrement, though there is obviously a visual link between the commune members shitting on plates and Miss World bathing/playing alone in chocolate. Cavell himself had already spoken of the documentary basis of every movie, “at least in the camera’s ineluctable interrogation of the natural endowment of the actors, the beings who submit their being to the work of film” (95). What strikes me on each viewing is the horror of this splendour being tied to selling a product. It is at least as immoral, as crazy, as young males full of life being channelled into human bombs to destroy themselves and others.
But, to conclude, we should return to some beginnings, to Suaudeau’s fundamental point about the passage between the literal and the figurative, the relationship between symbol and object in Makavejev’s films – and tie it to Corliss’ uneasy taste about the film and his own (expressed) response to it. Half-way through his editorial, Corliss says:
Miss Laure, a Natalie Wood type with a sexually eloquent young body, had stoked more than one critic’s libidinal flames last year at Cannes when she appeared in [Mort d’un bûcheron, The] Death of a Lumberjack [Gilles Carle, 1973], a classy sexploitation film with Quebecois political overtones. Makavejev undoubtedly saw Miss Laure’s wide-eyed sensuality as a metaphor for the West’s naïve eagerness to be debased. (96)
If she had been used in Lumberjack “to titillate the sophisticated voyeur”, Corliss supposed Makavejev decided to use her “to turn that voyeurism […] against itself” (97). He keeps supposing along these lines, noting Makavejev’s reaction shots to the cameraman shooting the ad, “licking his lips and shouting lewd encouragement to his/our succulent sex object”, but concludes that throughout Sweet Movie “the director focuses on Miss Laure’s body past all point of satire” (98).
The latter, however, is surely the point. The woman’s body cannot be reduced to a symbol to make an abstract, “respectable” point about the “unsavory exploitation” involved in looking. (99) The this-is-wrong-but-I-enjoyed-so-much-of-it tenor of the editorial nonetheless acknowledges the power of Miss World/Laure and her body. While she drowns in the chocolate, Miss World/Laure’s uninhibited vitality and body-performance remain – as a moment in a flow of life that narratively ends badly for us all.
I think Dermody and her co-writers share some of my own response to the feast Sweet Movie offers up when they suggest that it is precisely the “pluralistic face of human reality that Makavejev is intent upon recognizing with his fierce kind of pleasure” (100). They believe that the film offers “the ambiguous and confusing sweetness of living as its object”, providing us with “a means of knowing that rich, chaotic and dangerous face of reality” (101). One of Makavejev’s own comments on pleasure, they believe, illuminates the “nude, hungry, mad logic of Sweet Movie in its pursuit of the confusing wholeness of life” (102). He spoke of the danger of embracing the ideal of eternal pleasure, something like a life that remains within the womb. The dreams we have where we are fed, clothed and taken care of are really dreams of death. He was not recommending pain, he said, but believed “we have to accept life as something which is beautiful, painful and challenging” (103). On these terms too might we accept, care for and learn from Sweet Movie.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
All black and white photographs courtesy of Dušan Makavejev. All rights reserved.
- “Pleading Insanity”, Time, 3 November 1975, p. 71.
- “On Makavejev On Bergman”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 1979), pp. 318-9.
- Therapie Komune members were supplemented by people chosen by the director. At the end, there is a credit for “les membres de la Commune La Voie Lactée”, with a nod to Luis Buñuel.
- The accordionist, Louis Bessier, had been part of the October Group with Jacques Prévert in the 1930s. See Robert Benayoun and Michel Ciment’s “Entretien avec Dusan Makavejev (à propos de Sweet Movie)”, Positif, No. 160 (June, 1974), p. 22.
- See Donald Theall, “High Decibel Dialogue of the Electronic Fairground: Mediating Communication by Talking About It”, in Gerald O’Grady (Ed.), Makavejev Fictionary: The Films of Dušan Makavejev (Harvard Film Archive and American Museum of the Moving Image at the Public, Spring, 1995), p. 22.
- See Bart Testa, “Reflections on Makavejev, the Art Film and Transgression”, in Makavejev Fictionary, p. 12.
- For example, for Peter Cowie the film was “definitely not worthy of his talent”: see Dušan Makavejev”, in Peter Cowie (Ed.), 50 Major Film-Makers (South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1984), p. 169; for John Russell Taylor, it is a failure, but “not such a dishonorable failure”: see “Dušan Makavejev”, Directors and Directions: Cinema for the Seventies (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978), p. 250; and, for Ian Christie, its “anarchic provocation” seemed “a major betrayal of promise and has left Makavejev with a continuing credibility problem”: see “Dusan Makavejev”, in Film Dope, December 1987, p. 17.
- See “The Porno Plague”, Time, 5 April 1976, p. 43; and Roud’s editorial postscript to Robin Wood, “Dušan Makavejev”, in Richard Roud (Ed.), Cinema, A Critical Dictionary, Volume Two: Kinugasa to Zanussi (Bungay, Suffolk: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1980), p. 657.
- See Julien Suaudeau, “Dusan Makavejev, l’enfance de l’art”, Positif, No. 490 (December, 2001), p. 60, my translation. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from the French are my own.
- Ibid. Pier Paolo Pasolini, in fact, did an Italian version of Sweet Movie with Makavejev’s approval, called Infantile Malady of Left Communism. See John O’Hara, “WR and Sweet Movie: Dusan Makavejev”, Cinema Papers, No. 7 (November-December, 1975), p. 240, and Makavejev’s interview with Ray Privett, “The Country of Movies: Dusan Makavejev”, Facets Multimedia Chicago (December 2000), in Senses of Cinema: 8. Accessed 24 May 2002.
- Suaudeau, p. 60.
- Ibid, p. 56.
- Ibid, p. 57. The French “ceci n’est pas du sucre” is playing with René Magritte’s play of images and words.
- See Makavejev’s “Dans les Balkans, là où les fleuves coulent au-dessus des ponts”, translated from Serbo-Croatian into Italian by Rosalba Moleso, and from Italian into French, by Paul-Louis Thirard, Positif, No. 479 (January, 2001), p. 40.
- See Robert Benayoun, “Candy et le soldat de chocolat (sur Sweet Movie)”, Positif, No. 160 (June, 1974), p. 14.
- Herbert J. Eagle, “Collage in the Films of Dusan Makavejev”, Film Studies Annual, No. 1 (1976), p. 32.
- See Virginia Wright Wexman, “An Interview With Dusan Makavejev”, Chicago Reader, Vol. 5, No. 13 (December, 1975), p. 3. Makavejev said that the massacre was brought up during the McCarthy period in the United States by the extreme right, but not touched by the left.
- Stanley Cavell, “On Makavejev On Bergman”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 1979), p. 312.
- Ibid, p. 313.
- Lorenzo Codelli, “Is there life on earth? Makavejev’s phantoms of liberty”, Monogram, No. 6 (October, 1975), no pagination available.
- See O’Hara, p. 240.
- Edgardo Cozarinsky and Carlos Clarens, “Dusan Makavejev Interview”, Film Comment, Vol. 11, No. 3 (May-June, 1975), p. 51.
- O’Hara, p. 237.
- Cozarinsky and Clarens, p. 51.
- See Benayoun and Ciment, p. 19, and O’Hara, p. 237.
- On Laure’s leaving the production and the legal action that ensued, see Cozarinsky and Clarens; O’Hara; Wexman; Beverle Houston and Marsha Kinder, “Sweet Movie”, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Fall, 1978); Richard Corliss, “Sweet and Sour Movie”, Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 4 (July-August, 1974); and David Shaw, “The Mysteries of the Organism Called … Dusan Makavejev”, Suspect Culture, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall, 1994).
- See Wexman, p. 3.
- See Susan Dermody, Bruce Jenkins and John Mandelberg, “Is There Life On Earth? (is there life after birth?)”, Velvet Light Trap, No. 16 (Autumn, 1976), p. 47.
- Jay Cocks, “Pleading Insanity”, p. 70.
- Corliss, p. 59.
- Marsha Kinder, “Life and Death in the Cinema of Outrage, or, The Bouffe and the Barf”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Winter, 1974-5), p. 10.
- Houston and Kinder, p. 552.
- Elena Pinto Simon, “‘I Have Been Fighting Narrative for Years …’: An Interview with Dusan Makavejev”, University Film Study Center Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Supplement December, 1975), p. 4.
- See Benayoun, p. 19.
- Dermody, et al., p. 48.
- As Cavell notes, Sweet Movie is obsessed with images of attempts to be born (p. 311).
- It is hard to believe Clémenti is the same being who seven years earlier played the sadistic trick in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.
- See Benayoun and Ciment, p. 21.
- Edgar Morin is quoting from Epstein’s L’Intelligence d’une machine in The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man: An Essay in Sociological Anthropology, translated by Lorraine Mortimer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 64. The emphasis is Morin’s and it is he who suggests we read ‘cinema’ for Epstein’s ‘cinematograph’.
- See Delahaye’s “Contingent 66 1 A”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 178 (May, 1966).
- See Wilhelm Reich, “The Breakthrough Into the Vegetative Realm”, Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960), p. 111. Houston and Kinder also cite this sentence (see p. 553).
- Cocks, p. 71.
- In a letter to Houston and Kinder, Makavejev noted that, when Anna shakes hands with the children to welcome them aboard, “this is the typical gesture language of ‘revolutionary’ bureaucrats” (see p. 561).
- Daniel J. Goulding, chapter Five, “Makavejev”, in Daniel J. Goulding (Ed.), Five Filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Forman, Polanski, Szabó, Makavejev (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 242.
- Benayoun, p. 14.
- Benayoun and Ciment, p. 21.
- Makavejev told Benayoun and Ciment that the scene took on the importance it did from the décor with its collage of elements. The art director made the rich castle of sweets. It was after seeing what he did that Makavejev then thought of Hansel and Gretel and the gingerbread castle (see p. 22).
- Houston and Kinder, pp. 557-8.
- Ibid, p. 549.
- Cavell, p. 310.
- Ibid, p. 320.
- Ibid, pp. 320-1.
- Ibid, p. 321.
- Marx in Cavell, p. 312.
- See O’Hara, p. 237.
- Pinto Simon, p. 2.
- O’Hara, p. 237.
- See Benayoun and Ciment, p. 23.
- Theall, p. 8.
- Testa, p. 12.
- Ibid, p. 10.
- Ibid, p. 11. See Testa’s discussion of the importance of a cinema of auteurs and national cinemas to the vitality of film art in the decades after World War II; his arguments for Makavejev’s Belgrade, rather than Parisian or Hispanic surrealism; and his strong contention that, in a cinematic form of Brechtianism, Makavejev broke with humanism and humanist style in the cinema.
- Benayoun, p. 13.
- Ibid, p. 17.
- John Gianvito, “Gaga”, in Makavejev Fictionary, p. 22.
- Cozarinsky and Clarens, p. 51.
- Cavell, p. 315.
- Ibid, p. 317.
- Ibid, p. 316.
- See Robert Hatch, “Films”, The Nation, Vol. 221, No. 4 (1 November 1975), p. 444.
- The classic discussion of this notion is in Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Ark, 1984).
- Houston and Kinder, p. 549.
- Theall, p. 8.
- O’Hara, p. 238.
- See Cozarinsky and Clarens, p. 50.
- See Makavejev’s comments to O’Hara about the need for commune members to protect themselves by deliberately turning people off (p. 238).
- Makavejev has mentioned the love scenes in the sand in Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) and Suna no onna (Woman of the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) as a stimulus here.
- See Benayoun, p. 16.
- Testa, p. 12.
- Benayoun and Ciment, p. 21.
- Epstein in Morin, p. 58.
- See Eagle, “Collage in the Films of Dusan Makavejev”, p. 35. In “Yugoslav Marxist Humanism and the Films of Dušan Makavejev”, in David W. Paul (Ed.), Politics, Art and Commitment in the East European Cinema (London: Macmillan Press, 1983), Eagle noted that Makavejev himself remarked that in making Sweet Movie “he was indulging his own inclinations toward martyrdom: the angry response to a film whose imagery is so shocking has damaged his chances of making films in the West as well as in the East” (p. 146).
- Benayoun, p. 14.
- Cavell, pp. 319-20.
- Ibid, p. 312.
- Corliss, p. 59.
- Dermody et al, p. 46.
- Ibid, p. 47.
- See Wexman, p. 39, and Dermody, et al, p. 47.