Off-Season Reviews: Sweet Movie (1974)

[There’s breasts and gold-plated penises in this one. You’ve been warned.]

For April’s final “torture porn” offering, I’ve turned to Dusan Makavejev’s “Sweet Movie.” A movie so difficult to watch, it’s been literally banned places! (Largely countries in the Western Bloc; for reasons that’ll be covered below.) Its dealing with coprophilia, emetophilia, and borderline kiddie porn will likely make you turn it off. Or at least pause it numerous times as you wonder what the hell you’re watching, and what your parents/friends will think about you if you die from a heart attack; leaving them to find you watching it. Compounding the difficulty is Makavejev’s montage-style of storytelling, a “star” who quit in the middle of production, and the whole dirty feeling you get when watching it. Damn kids undressing adult women; ruin everything.

“On the mountain top
I see something black
Is it cow shit
Or my beloved?”

The film’s story is actually two tales intercut: one, the misadventures of Ms. Canada (Carole Laure), the other a travelogue of the good ship “Survival” down the Seine. Ms. Canada symbolizes how purity is systematically destroyed by capitalism, while Capt. Ann (Anna Prucnal), sails a boat, with a oversized model of Karl Marx’s face on its bow, portraying the dangers of rampant sexual freedom. (“Where is this boat going? All the way!”)

It’s an interesting idea, even if it does demand numerous viewing to piece it together. Especially when you consider who easily Sweet Movie could’ve turned into a Gigli/Jersey Girl-style mess. Ms. Canada begins her journey at the top of the sexual/capitalist food chain; herself a virgin and her husband the richest businessman in the world (“he only buys brand new!” they gush at the wedding). She’s unable to consummate the marriage when she finds his penis is as gold as his credit cards, as well as the following shower.

Now a liability to the man (as she could rightfully claim half his fortune), Canada is proclaimed insane, and sent to a French asylum. On the way, she again almost experiences sexual release, this time by her captor; a bodybuilder who was once featured in the Museum of Natural History for his physical perfection. His aggression scares her this time, so she satisfies him with a trick “her father taught her;” i.e. a handjob.

One amazing travel sequence later, and Ms. Canada awakes in France. Locked up in luggage, with just her head poking out of a suitcase. A suitcase which is strapped to the top of a very real car, which is very swiftly cruising around the Arc de Triomphe. A scene so perfect it’ll be burnt into your mind forever after.

Ms. Canada finally finds release on the Eiffel Tower with the mariachi sensation, Mr. Macho (Sami Frey). Unfortunately this encounter, predictably, does not go smoothly, as a shock forces her vagina to grasp Macho’s penis too tightly; causing medical aid to be needed.

Now clearly untouchable, Ms. Canada arrives at the Therapie-Komune, where she runs into Austrian, Actionist enfant terrible Otto Muehl. Muehl and his followers, who make up the rest of the Komune’s “cast,” go through what is considered, by and large, a typical Actionist performance. One member pulls out his member, wrapped in a towel holding bloody meat, and chops it off. This causes excitement in the group, who then proceed to make out, disrobe, urinate, masturbate, and defecate at the table. All while the other members continue to eat from the now filthy plates. Culminating in a elevator ride to the roof, where the three riders try to fill their respective plates with shit.

Needless to say, this is the scene that caused Sweet Movie’s star, Carole Laure, to run screaming from the production; refusing to finish the film. Forcing director Makavejev to create the Capt. Anna story-line to flesh out the tale. Anna’s story essentially finishes Ms. Canada’s. Anna can find love, but can’t be satisfied. Her lover Potemkin (Pierre Clementi), is prone to heart attacks, she murders him. She also tries to seduce three pre-pubescent boys, in a scene that somehow tops Muehl’s in difficulty to watch.

(Makavejev insists in the commentary that the children were in total control during the scene. Being able, he says, to call it quits whenever they became uncomfortable. A reassurance that’s somehow less reassuring when you consider the power imbalance inherent in such a situation. What child is really going to be comfortable upending an entire film production?)

Anna eventually coming to the conclusion that the mystified/glorified ideal love cannot exist. “Are you afraid of the past?,” Potemkin asks, only to be rebuffed by Anna’s admission that while “the bitter taste remains,” you must make the witnesses disappear. Perfection being only a figment of one’s imagination, and thus never graspable.

Tying into Sweet Movie’s theme of idealized past versus a repressed present, is Makavejev’s choice to include Soviet footage of the Katyn Massacre in his ’74 film. Arguably the film’s most controversial sequence, at least in the Eastern Bloc, it is Nazi footage showing their find of a secret Soviet mass grave.

Controversial since the Soviet Union (predictably) denied its occurrence (star Prucnal (“Anna”) would be banned from returning to Poland for decades afterwards), and even the glasnost-loving Russian Federation finding that thousands of Polish nationalists had died, but still refusing to classify it as a war crimes/genocide. It actually wouldn’t be until 2010, almost 60 years after the massacre, that Stalin would officially be blamed.

Though the footage ties in, the juxtaposition never quite settles. A very Eisenstein-ian move, that, while not totally out of place in a movie full of jump cuts, still forces one to wonder: did Makavejev just shoehorn the massacre footage into a film that was otherwise a cluttered mess to give it some (heavy-handed) meaning? Or is it an elaborate “fuck you” to the critics who would otherwise write off this tale of love and ideology as meaningless avant-porn?

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