Criterion // 1974 // 98 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // July 2nd, 2007
A full-throated shriek in the face of bourgeois complacency and movie watching.
Following the release of his 1971 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a genre-bending exploration of Communism and sexuality, Yugoslavian filmmaker Du?an Makavejev became something of an international sensation. In fact, Francis Ford Coppola was so taken with WR, he offered Makavejev the opportunity to direct Apocalypse Now. However, Makavejev wasn't interested, and chose to make Sweet Movie instead.
Sweet Movie has an episodic, collage-like plot that mostly alternates between the sexual adventures of two women. The first is Miss Canada 1984 (Carole Laure), who, in addition to the her beauty crown, wins the right to marry Mr. Dollars (the great John Vernon, Killer Klowns from Outer Space), the richest man in the world. On their wedding night, Miss Canada is frightened by Dollars' golden penis, and flees his estate. She falls in and out of the clutches of a series of lecherous rogues, and embarks on a tour of sexual exploration in a series of venues around the world.
The other woman is Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal), who is the skipper of a steamboat that bears a large papier-mache head of Karl Marx on the prow. While sailing through a city she picks up a young, randy sailor, and the two engage in a series of erotic adventures, which include copious amounts of candy and a fair amount of violence.
After reading the plot summary, it should go without saying that Sweet Movie is a strange movie. When it was released in 1974 it was shown almost exclusively in art or cult theater houses, and was well received by those audiences. However, the film has encountered resistance from most mainstream audiences and critics, which is not surprising. The eccentric cast of characters, absurdist humor, and discomforting sex acts makes Sweet Movie a grating experience (worth noting: some of the sex acts are unsimulated). In that sense, in terms of simply visceral pleasure, Sweet Movie should be rated very low.
However, Makavejev is hardly a mindless provocateur, and he does deserve credit for creating a unique and ambitious movie. For all its faults, Sweet Movie provides intriguing visuals, trenchant political commentary, and several bouts of uncomfortable laughter. His earnestness and daringness makes this a difficult movie to grade. I'm grateful that there are talented directors like Makavejev who are willing to experiment and risk alienating their audience to tell their story. In this sense, Sweet Movie reminds me of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I saw Fear and Loathing in the theater shortly after it was released, and found it to be a very unpleasant experience. But at the same time, the film was visually stunning, and Gilliam seemed to succeed in delivering the film he set out to create.
Makavejev was living and working in Communist Yugoslavia until his provocative WR caused authorities to crack down on his films. His preoccupation with that political ideology runs amok in this film, and while I'm sure many of the critiques of Communism are lost on me, their inclusion makes for especially interesting viewing in a (mostly) post-Communist world. For example, in the middle of the film Makavejev inserts seemingly random newsreel footage of the Katyn Forest massacre, an incident in 1940 in which Soviet soldiers massacred thousands of Polish citizens and POWs. After the war the Soviet government denied responsibility for the killings, and questioning their culpability caused great friction among the superpowers during the Cold War. While many contemporary audiences will be confused by the inclusion of the newsreel footage, it must have been a provocative broadside against the Soviet Union upon the film's release in 1974.
But of course, Sweet Movie is not just about politics. Its subplot involving Miss Canada, and her constant encounters with sexual predators, reminded me of Christian Marquand's underrated 1968 film Candy. In Marquand's movie the titular Candy -- like Miss Canada -- begins the film as an innocent and is slowly corrupted by a series of lecherous men. Also like Sweet Movie, the film Candy employs absurd, almost psychedelic, conventions to enliven the story (check out Marlon Brando phoning in his performance as a fake Indian guru). However, for all its weirdness, Candy manages to be humorous and sensual and somewhat endearing, all attributes Sweet Movie lacks. While I understand Makavejev has little consideration for his audiences' enjoyment -- and I kind of respect that -- I can't help but wish he used a little saccharine in his Sweet Movie.
While I rarely have any quibbles with Criterion releases, this is not a flawless presentation. As expected, the picture quality is impressive, especially for a low-budget art film that's over 30 years old. However, the sound levels don't seem to be mixed quite right. In some scenes characters would converse and I found myself turning up the volume. In the next scene there would be a loud music queue and my speakers would just about blow out. This back and forth happened about a half dozen times, and caused me to keep the remote close at hand at all times. However, there are a couple nice extras here, including an interview with Makavejev himself, as well as Balkan film scholar Dina Iordanova. There is also a musical performance from Anna Prucnal, taken from a 1979 French talk show, in which she explains that her appearance in Sweet Movie caused her to get banned from Poland.
If you're going to watch this film, come in with an open mind. In addition to a consistent, low-level discomfort, there is an extended scene with a nude lady dancing for, and occasionally on, two young children. This scene's inclusion probably causes Sweet Movie to leap frog past a couple of other films such as 4 and Irreversible, in terms of sheer disturbance, though it still lands well short of Pasolini's Salo.
Don't let the title fool you, Sweet Movie is a pretty abrasive, sexually graphic film from the uninhibited 1970s. If you enjoy experimental cinema and being visually assaulted, this is your kind of film. All others, approach with extreme caution.
There's a hung jury on this one, so I'm going to dismiss the case, mostly because I don't think I want to see this film in my courtroom again for a very long time.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Additional footage of Anna Prucnal singing
* Interviews: Dusan Makavejev, Dina Iordanova
* Essay: Stanley Cavell, David Sterritt