Sweet Movie – Dušan Makavejev

9 Sep

Sweet Movie

Nationality: Yugoslavia/serbia though not filmed there.

Pros: Unique historical artefact.  Strange and unexpectedly haunting.  Brilliant and very brave performance from Anna Pruncal.  Tribute to anarchic and revolutionary film making.
Cons:  Many ‘faults’ and embarrassing moments.  Show it to an average British viewer and you would probably be hung from a lamp post.  But on the film’s own terms, that is a pro rather than a con!

Unlike Possession, this film by Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev is certainly out to shock.  Almost totally.  Let’s get that clear from the start.  Sweet Movie is a full-throated and unrestrained, last-straw, finally-cracked-and-laughing-with-the-insanity-of-it-all shriek in the face of all the forces of complacency and repression and dirt in the world.  And yet, the strange part of this is that, in doing so, Makavejev has created a unique and totally bizarre and haunting – even touching work of art.  It manages to be all sorts of things at once.  Absurdist fantasy.  Lunatic Sex Satire.  Terrifying portrayal of troubled souls generated by a troubled culture and of those kicking out and rebelling against it, swinging back to the other extremes of liberation and freedom.  But alongside that, one thread of this story tells of Anna Planeta – a bleak and disturbed woman who captains a ship (named the Survival and carrying a huge bust of Karl Marx on the prow) that sails the Amsterdam canals, filled with sugar and sweets and corpses, picking up children and lovers for sex, revolutionary talk and murder – in various combinations.  That is a storyline that taps into a deep thread of fairytale – the witch in the gingerbread house.  Anna is beautifully realised and a stunning and somehow exhilarating performance – remarkably raw and touching in spite of, or more likely because of, the fact that the actor is no polished professional.  Instead of the seductive and dangerous stereotype of the female anti-heroine, Anna is a beautiful, twisted, fragile and very human-looking person, filled with desolation and despair, who creates an unforgettable image standing on the prow of her surreal ship, the Survival.

Sweet Movie

Anna is an inevitable, in a way, and as such deserves an open eye, not mere shocked repulsion.  She is the inevitable product of the stifling complacency and repression of Yugoslavia, which this film is essentially pitting itself against (though it is equally mocking of capitalist society as well).  This was a world where writers who didn’t write according to the ideology of the state had their passports confiscated – a world only just recovering from a time when where even scientists and researchers and historians were told what to say, to make sure that it fitted the requirements of that ideology.  Where everything had to revolve around the perpetuation of a specific mindset.  Failure to go along with that or daring to think originally and for yourself could lead to persecution – sometimes of a terminal kind.  People who dared to use their brains fled into emigration if they could, where they were left simmering about the state of the homeland left behind (possibly reflected in the distinctly cosmopolitan nature of this film).  It sounds like a fantasy – an Orwellian or Kafkaesque nightmare.  But this world was very real.

Sweet Movie

Sweet Movie

As an environment like that crumbles, shock tactics and back-lashes like this – described on the DVD cover as a ‘full-throated shriek in the face of bourgeois complacency’ which kicks things wide open in bleeding artistic rebellion – are not only inevitable but, I would say, essential as a part of the artistic scene.  This film pulled out all the stops, leaving out nothing in either its mockery or its exploration of the limits of liberation.  Inevitably the film was banned and smothered and forgotten just about everywhere, even in the so-called non-repressive places in the world.  One scene – of Anna doing a seductive dance for some children in her sugar-filled boat, was too much for England, where the film was quickly banned and has still never been released on DVD. Anna Pruncal, who played the part of Anna Planeta, was forced into exile from her home country of Poland because of this role – not even able to return to see her dying mother.

Sweet Movie

Sweet Movie

Finally though, after lying long forgotten and unknown, the film surfaced again when Criterion in the US produced a proper DVD of it.  Uncut and in all its strange and offensive and sometimes beautiful glory.  It’s a very nice release, with subtitles for the parts that are not in English (the film itself uses about 4 languages) and some nice extras.  Interviews and talks that help put the film in context, which is invaluable here, and a film of Anna Pruncal performing one of the songs.  And, on that note, it is worth mentioning that the music here (when not a part of the satire and mockery) is really exquisite.  Very delicate and folksy and with haunting little melodies that linger for a long time.

Sweet Movie

Sweet Movie

One could say that this film is so much of it’s time and place – so much a backlash against the Yugoslav bourgeoisie – that it can only be viewed as a historical artefact.  I am not so sure though.  Unlike so many ‘shocking’ movies, in the mere act of being offensive and mocking, this film raises endless fascinating questions about society and its morality – and it contains a few scenes that would reduce the average viewer to hysterics even today, showing that it still has the power to kick you exactly where it hurts, even now. And still take an unflinching look at what true liberation and the rebound from repression can mean, in terms of both dark and light – perhaps proving that the world still has it’s complacency that needs lashing.  That there is still a long way to go yet before the human mind can possibly be called free. And that there are many pitfalls and dangers on that road as well. And endless pain and suffering.

Whatever way you look at it, one thing is for certain.  A film like this will never be made again.  And therefore it remains an invaluable part of recent history.  And, even though it is not without its faults (the best cinema is the stuff with faults in, I sometimes think, because that way you get closer to the hearts and minds behind it.), there is something very genuine and heartfelt – and brave – in the way it is put together that transcends all the fuss and hype it caused.

Sweet Movie

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