A dirty joke masquerading as libertine battle hymn, Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie corrupts the propriety of mid-century American advertising, perverting its candyshell colors and doe-eyed piety into a series of mordant provocations, succeeding in evoking anarchy, but failing as a treatise on subjective morality and epicureanism. Initial arguments made against opulence and cultural convention triumph as profane representations of privileged ignorance, but any ideological coherence is diluted by Makavejev’s penchant for shock, a technique that only functions when freed from artistic pretense and banal radicalism.
Broken into vignettes like a variety program, Sweet Movie targets oppressive isms seemingly at random, summarizing its anti-authoritarian polemic through the episodic agony of its impotent lead (Carole Laure). Representing Canada in a televised Miss World competition, our unnamed protagonist prevails on account of the warm glow emanating from her vagina, a feat that can’t be replicated by brutish Yugoslavian or urbanized Congolese contestants. The stereotypes and slurs directed at participants by broadcaster and costumer alike link directly to each woman’s ethnicity, be it a mannish belligerence or bikini of bananas, and bear a vulgarity that suits the limitations of beauty pageants and the meaningless of ordained labels, indicting anthropological grouping for crimes against the individual.
The intentional vapidity of dialogue and disposition play directly into Makavejev’s politics, yet, blissful ignorance is offset by lush photography, proving Dušan’s primary allegiance to aesthetic over civic responsibility. Metaphor and contrast also motivate the surrealistic succession of images, signifying chastity by swiftly cutting from the luminosity of Miss Canada’s womanhood to a surging waterfall and transfiguring the artificiality of papier-mâché and halogen bulbs into sacred objects.
An aquatic passage, captured in mesmerizing slow motion, accents the cosmetic blue pigment of chlorinated pool water, manifesting an oil-slick rainbow of blurred shades from the newly-crowned Miss Monde’s flowing garments. Though her submergence is directly linked to the submissive role of a trophy wife (her victor’s garland was an industrialist spouse), it still relies on the “superficial” joys of visual art, clashing directly with the rigid tenets of Socialist Serbia and the objective purity sought by Monde’s new husband, M. Kapital (Animal House’s John Vernon). By virtue of his antiseptic approach to coitus, which includes a bath in isopropyl alcohol and a deluge of sterile urine in place of ejaculate, Dušan reflects on the mechanics of capitalism, exhibiting the soulless exchange of goods that occurs when the birth canal is reduced to a “sanitation system for unchecked waste.”
In an effort to parallel fictional acts of dehumanization with the genuine article, Makavejev deftly pivots to stock footage of exhumed corpses from the Katyn Forest Massacre, reflecting on the fragments of lives culled from the shirt pockets of indecipherable ashes. Beneath the initial disturbance of veritable inhumanity lies an allegorical centerpiece, one that exhibits extremity as the logical culmination of petty injustices, correlating the treatment of humans as product to the treatment of humans as refuse. As the segment climaxes on a mound of lifeless cadavers, the grim black-and-white of the past is reborn as a puddle of bubbling, crimson wax, presenting the comfort of fantasy over the severity of truth, and admonishing those who enable suffering through callow disregard.
Though these efforts to unmask corporeal and spiritual exploitation thrive when juxtaposing catastrophe and kitsch, Makavejev’s only resolution to autocratic power is sexual nihilism, a dogma that liberates the like-minded few at the expense of the uninitiated. The boundlessness of Sweet Movie’s libido is designed to subvert orthodoxy and disregard governmental control of the human form, but uncomfortable interludes of child grooming and unsimulated bodily function exist only to repulse, struggling to indoctrinate adventurous viewers into a “new morality” as vain and wasteful as its predecessor.
If this ode to the purely physical manages to sell an audience on its revisionist politics and assemblage of amoral stunts, it does so through its polarities, conjuring the seductive and stomach-churning from abject desire and malevolence. At its most resonant, the erotic and morbid are made one, reaching its zenith by coaxing arousal from the sight of bare skin coated in melted chocolate, while conjuring glimpses of sunken Katyn Forest cadavers. This audacity of vision makes for a profound and unsettling set of symbols, ideas marred only by a predilection for the scatological that can’t differentiate between detritus and the divine.
Sweet Movie (Maran Film/Mojack Film Ltée/V.M. Productions, 1974)
Directed by Dušan Makavejev
Written by Dušan Makavejev, France Gallagher (collaborator) and Martin Malina (collaborator)
Photographed by Pierre Lhomme
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