Sweet Movie

Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) is his follow-up to WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and the last truly radical movie he was given the money to make. Like WR, Sweet Movie is a dense montage of disparate political and sexual elements, but overall it is much more cryptic and baffling. There are two main plotlines. The first involves Miss World, the winner of a virgin’s beauty contest, who is married to the world’s wealthiest man, who of course is a crass American capitalist. The other concerns a young sailor from the Battleship Potemkin, a “sexual proletarian,” who becomes the lover of Anna Planeta, the captain of a ship, called SURVIVAL, with Marx’s head for a figurehead, which sails around the canals of Amsterdam.

Two allegorical/sexual sequences, then: one is capitalism and the other is communism. Both are sinister: both are fueled by libidinal energies, which they co-opt and transform into a surplus of seductive power. Makavejev shows us these transformations, without explicit judgment. We have to make what we can of them, and of their juxtapositions.

Miss World runs screaming from her wedding-night bed with Mr. Kapital. It’s less his obsessive cleanliness ritual that upsets her — he wipes both her and himself down with some sort of rubbing alcohol or antiseptic — than his golden dick, from which streams forth an abundant liquid flow (urine? oil? water? I wasn’t sure). She goes through a series of erotic and therapeutic encounters — with a stereotypical black American stud, with a fake-Mexican macho, etc. — and ends up in advertising: masturbating for the camera while wallowing in liquid chocolate that is being poured all over her — they are shooting a commercial that is supposed to make this particular brand of chocolate unforgettable.

Meanwhile, Anna Planeta and the sailor from the Potemkin are endlessly fucking in an enormous vat of raw sugar. It’s Reichian sex-pol revolutionary bliss, until (and even still when) Anna grabs a knife and castrates, then kills him. He swoons and dies still completely happy, as the red of his blood mixes with the white of the sugar, giving it a unique and pungent texture. He may be glad to die for the revolution, but the communist ship of state has an overall stench of corpses, mixed with the sickly sweetness of the sugar and its supply of lollipops and other candies. When Anna Planeta is neither fucking the sailor nor brooding on the bow of her ship, just above the Marx figurehead, she is busy seducing underage teenage boys (they look to be about 14), whose violated corpses are later retrieved from the ship by the Dutch police.

But I still haven’t mentioned the most viscerally memorable parts of the film, which involve Otto Muehl‘s anti-psychiatric collective. Miss World is brought to them in a wheelbarrow, traumatized and in shock from her experiences of sexuality-as-commodity. Muehl and his collective (who really existed; it is unclear to what extent Makavejev’s portrait of them is documentary, and to what extent it is staged for the film) engage in all sorts of rituals, art performances, and behaviors designed to break down ego defenses and return the group to a state of (Norman O. Brown-ish?) polymorphous perversity. In the course of a communal dinner, members of the group play with their food, play with their testicles, smear bodily fluids/products on one another, and regurgitate amidst screams of delight. Later, they dance nude to a rendition of the Internationale played on a hurdy-gurdy, and shit into dinner plates that are then passed around as culinary delicacies. All this is quite self-consciously performative — rather than ‘primal’ — but it is definitely ‘real’ rather than simulated. None of this does very much for Miss World, who continues to sit in the midst of all the activity in a glum stupor, except when she is nourished from a lactating woman’s breast — but presumably (insofar as we grant the story any sort of linear narrative meaning) it ‘liberates’ her to wallow in the chocolate in the following sequence.

Makavejev also intercuts other material — as one might expect — including orgasmic shots of Niagara Falls, and, most notably, documentary footage of the unearthing of the corpses of Polish soldiers/prisoners who were massacred on Stalin’s orders during World War II; and some sort of German Nazi footage of an Aryan baby being manhandled by a doctor in the name of greater Health.
All in all, this makes for a film that is considerably more visceral (and less immediately delightful) than WR. Makavejev is pushing limits here: both in his frequent shots of (non-erect) male genitalia, together with scatalogical imagery, and in his touching on emotional areas — like an adult woman sexually performing for underage boys — that is far more taboo today than it was in 1974. Still, for all Sweet Movie‘s shocks and extremities, I cannot quite think of it as “transgressive,” in the sense that word holds in so much 20th century art. Because, although Makavejev is going where no filmmaker (except, perhaps, in the low-end of porn/exploitation moviemaking) had ever gone before, he absolutely insists on intertwining erotic release with power and domination, love with death, sex with shit, sweetness with putridity. There is none of the glee in being outrageous that one finds, so endearingly, even in the most reprehensible sex or slasher exploitation movies. But there is also nothing like the way, for instance, that Samuel Delany depicts orgies of golden showers and the like with a rich, naturalistic density, and an attention to the pleasures and satisfactions of the body. Rather, Makavejev directly links the sublime and abject bodies he depicts to the film’s overall allegorical abstractions, in which bodies stand for, or reveal themselves as symptoms of, social conditons (capitalism, communism) that they nonetheless cannot embody or coincide with.

It’s this knottiness, and this insistence upon “intellectual montage,” that makes the film so difficult to parse. And that forces the viewer to confront his or her own affective responses, as much as the images that provoke those responses. For me, the film was as much about my own anality (as I suppose one would have to call it in psychoanalytic terms) as it was about anything else. I mean, I have no trouble watching the violations of, and violence to, human bodies in horror films, even in the calculated sado-porn of movies like Hostel. But I find stuff like in-your-face regurgitation, and bodily immersion in chocolate or sugar (not to mention shit), somehow difficult to watch. Especially when it seems that the actors are not simulating, but doing it “for real.” I guess food (and slimy or greasy or already-partly-digested-liquefied food in particular) is just too Real (in the Lacanian sense) to me. Or, perhaps, it is the site where my inner fascist, with its fear of boundary dissolution and flows (cf. Theweleit) comes into play.

In any case, the gustatory (or, rather, digestive) imagery in Sweet Movie was the nodal point of the film for me — others may fixate more on other material instead. But overall, the film’s power comes largely from the way that it insists that bodies and their (sexual, gustatory, sensing, etc.) modalities are both in a certain sense primordial, and at the same time caught up in webs of power relations, exploitations, commercial or propagandist manipulations, and so forth. NOT caught up in a web of signs or significations (the way the “structuralism” of the 1960s and 1970s so famously insisted), but precisely caught up in relations of production and circulation and exploitation that are irreducible to, and at times even directly contradictory to, those signifying networks. The point of Makavejev’s allegorism is precisely to make a direct link between the Artaudian viscerality of bodies on the one hand, and the so-abstract-as-not-even-to-be-representable circuits of money/power/influence on the other, while signification or the Symbolic drops out of the equation, since it cannot possibly mediate this link between the most concrete and singular, and the most universal and abstract. In this way, affirming all this, Makavejev remains very much a Marxist (all the more so for his harsh critique of actually existing socialism); while as a Freudian he has moved beyond the sterile dichotomies between Reichian apocalyptic liberationism and the right-Freudian insistence upon primal repression, to a more politico-cynical understanding of bodies and their drives, and how they fit into power relations and flows.

Sweet Movie is, at one and the same time, too intellectual to be ecstatic, and too visceral to be theorizable. Certain questions the film asks simply can’t be answered: there is no way really to evaluate what goes on in Muehl’s commune, and no interest in determining what Makavejev actually thinks of it, or might intend us to think of it. Rather, the density of what we see in the sequences with Muehl and his group makes it impossible to maintain either the sense that it was truly liberatory, or the sense that it was a kind of enforced-fascist nightmare embodying the worst, most oppressive, side of 60s/70s utopian naivete and groupthink. It’s worth noting, in any case, that Muehl’s group belongs to the film’s capitalist series, rather than its communist one; it plays a role in the capitalist storylineequivalent to the one that Anna’s seduction of the adolescent boys plays in the communist storyline. Both are provocations in which pleasure and control are intertwined; both energize their participants only to precipitate them into the film’s double culmination: the “obscene” orgy as ultimate commodity spectacle on the capitalist side; a grim police procedural, against a background that combines overfull sweetness (sugar) and grim decay (the stench of corpses, the stench of history) on the communist side.

Still, the film ends with a still on a final shot in which the teenage boys murdered by Anna Planeta, whose corpses are laid out on the verge of the canal, stir into life and begin to emerge from their body bags. Shortly before, there’s a brief shot of the Potemkin sailor, also returned to life, watching the shooting of the Miss World chocolate commercial. This fleeting suggestion of resurrection would be Makavejev’s only (and tentative) answer to both communism’s regime of death, and capitalism’s total colonization of life (what would today be called biopolitics). Is it merely a crypto-religious yearning, that these bones may live? Or does Makavejev’s libidino-cognitive mapping of the deadlocks of the twentieth century hold out any prospects to us in the twenty-first?

One Response to “Sweet Movie”

  1. […] Sweet Movie There is none of the glee in being outrageous that one finds, so endearingly, even in the most reprehensible sex or slasher exploitation movies. But there is also nothing like the way, for instance, that Samuel Delany depicts orgies of … […]

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