Directed by Dusan Makavajev
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 98 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono English/Serbo-Croatian
Release Date: June 12, 2007
Review Date: June 10, 2007
Dusan Makavajev’s 1971 movie WR: Mysteries of the Organism won him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival and made him the toast of the international art film circuit. So what do you do for a follow-up when your hit film has pushed enough morality buttons to get you banned from making films in your own country? Well, in Makavajev’s case, you go to France, get co-financing from the French and Canadian governments, and make a satirical surrealist comedy that pushes the boundaries of taste and political correctness past the absolute breaking point. Makavajev pushed them so hard and so far, in fact, that his film Sweet Movie never got a wide distribution anywhere in the world. And having seen it, I can certainly understand why.
The director also provided the script for this boundlessly tasteless creation, and like his previous movie, there are multiple storylines at work. Two primary ones involve first a horrific journey of sexual awakening endured by the virginal winner of the 1974 Miss World contest (Carole Laure) and second, a brutally sexual coupling of a male-devouring boat skipper (Anna Prucnal) and her enraptured Russian sailor (Pierre Clementi), both Marxist supporters and proud of it. In one shocking sexual adventure after another, Laure’s character has the soul drained from her so that by the time she becomes a sought after model wallowing completely nude in a shot-in-close-up chocolate bath (a year before Ann-Margret did something similar in Ken Russell’s Tommy), she’s a blank-eyed zombie. Prucnal’s character warns her sailor lover that death comes to those who fulfill her sexually, and so we spend the remainder of the film in a state of dread anticipating what fate awaits him. (Need it be said that his end is indeed grisly?)
As he has done in all of his films, the director edits occasional clips from other films into the narrative giving the film a kaleidoscopic framework though, truth be told, he indulges in this affectation only three times during Sweet Movie, and in each case, the points he’s making with the intrusions are pertinent to his satirical objectives. And since his last film ended with a song, this one begins with one and features singing at several points during the film. The haunting theme music of the picture composed by Manos Hadjidakis (who also wrote the internationally famous Oscar-winning “Never on Sunday”) and sung by leading actress Anna Prucnal is the best element in the film.
But I must be honest in saying that this film infuriated me more than any film I’ve seen in over thirty years of watching and writing about movies. I found the director’s efforts to push the envelope of what’s acceptable in cinematic terms overtly crass, obviously indulgent, and self-consciously outrageous. There is a definite emphasis on bodily functions, and the extended sequence with the Otto Muehl Therapy Commune turns out to be the most repellant sequence it’s ever been my misfortune to witness. A dinnertime feast with the catatonic Laure observing the water sports, defecation for display and purification, vomiting for human consumption, and other assorted acts of “liberating” vulgarity is a cheap, desperate ploy by a director who must reach ever lower in his bag of tricks in order to be noticed. Throw in a little pedophilia and just a taste of cannibalism and that keeps the “anything goes” philosophy chugging right along. For Sweet Movie, its pseudo-hip salaciousness is its inevitable downfall.
And the performances with only one notable exception seem alarmingly amateurish. Veteran character actor John Vernon (from Animal House, Topaz, and Dirty Harry to name just a few) gives an unwieldy over-broad performance of a Texas billionaire, Laure’s first husband who gives her the first taste of the sordid sexual bill of fare to come. Pierre Clementi’s tragic Russian sailor alone among the principals makes his moments in the spotlight count, even when he’s asked to wallow in a bed of sugar and allow a white mouse to crawl over, under, around, and through him and his partner.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is presented in a widescreen anamorphic transfer that features sharp images and outstanding color reproduction. Flesh tones are especially true, though shadow detail is occasionally limited and a few close-ups are unnaturally grainy. For a film of this age, the picture quality is particularly striking. Subtitles when they are necessary (the film is partially in English) are very well placed and easy to read. The film has been divided into 22 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is clear but of limited fidelity. That’s most apparent in the musical numbers that pop up several times during the film. The sound sometimes has a muffled or distorted quality, too, in the repugnant commune sequence as the various animalistic sounds made by the members of the troupe overcome the sensitivity of the microphones.
Being a “budget” Criterion release, the special features are on the sparse side compared to their more elaborate presentations with other feature films.
Critic Peter Cowie conducts a 21-minute interview with the director in which Makavajev recounts the efforts it took for him to find financing after he was banned from his own Yugoslavia and explains why the commune sequence runs on at great length. We get some insight into the composition of the chocolate used in that infamous wallowing scene, too. The interview, presented in anamorphic video, features numerous clips from the film.
Film historian Dina Iordanova offers a 20-minute appreciation (or possibly more precisely stated an apologia) for the movie that attempts to make a case for its offensiveness by claiming it is a primary tenant in a wave of subversive cinema. She seems to believe wholeheartedly in her explanations, but they left me unmoved and unconvinced.
The main musical theme of the film outfitted with new lyrics by director Pier Paolo Pasolini (himself no stranger to subversive cinema) is sung by actress Anna Prucnal in a 4½ minute television performance.
The enclosed booklet offers a few stills from the film (including a chocolate one) and two appreciations of the film’s merits by critics David Steritt and Stanley Cavell, both of whom find virtue in its hyper-vulgarity.
Sweet Movie? Not to me. I found it an unpalatable concoction best left alone.