Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sweet Movie (1974)

Since Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" was my first official review here, I now go to the opposite extreme and bring you "Sweet Movie." These two films can not be any farther apart from each other, in fact any movie review from now on will probably fall somewhere between the innocence of "Sleeping Beauty" and shear taboo pushing anarchy of this film.

I had never heard of "Sweet Movie" before, and would assume most of you haven't either. It came to me by way of one of the most important words to a film junkie, "Criterion." There are very few words that will cause me to see a film without knowing anything about it, a few directors names come to mind; Hitchcock, Speilberg, etc., maybe an actor or two; Jimmy Stewart, but it is the word Criterion that does it all of the time. For those who don't know Criterion, and are truly serious about film, you need to start looking for them right away. The Criterion Collection is a privately owned company that distributes the highest quality versions of important international classic and contemporary films. They pioneered many innovations in the way movies were presented on video that are now standard features such as letterboxing, commentary tracks and the release of multi-disc sets, special editions and definitive versions. And unlike the Oscars, they know what is important when it comes to film, with only a few exceptions. Their releases are usually priced much higher than a normal DVD, but this money is usually going into restoration and the highest quality of extras that can be had for each individual picture. If you can afford it, it's worth the money.

With that in mind, I found myself one weekend pulling into one of my usual video stores to browse what's new only to see a big sign reading, "Going out of business, all videos must go." All DVD's were $7, I immediately began to salivate. Upon entering, I realized the store had been picked through quite well already. But I knew that the "normal" movie going audience would go to the New Release shelf to get the fourth sequel to a really bad movie, a DVD they could probably pick up new for a few dollars more, I would search for that special word Criterion. I ended up finding 5 and purchased them all for what the price of one would have been. And in that pack was "Sweet Movie."

The film created a huge controversy upon its release in 1974, with most critics outraged. It would be banned or severely edited and continues to be banned in many countries to this day. It was nearly impossible to find since its initial run until this release by Criterion in 2007. Directed by DuĊĦan Makavejev, who had been exiled from Yugoslavia after his previous film "WR: Mysteries of the Organism," it pushes the boundaries of societal norms touching on any number of taboo topics. Believe me when I say there is something to repulse and disturb all but the most jaded sensibilities in this cinematic mind bomb: urination, defecation, vomiting, seduction of children, senseless murder, communal idiocy, abuse of all kinds, and actual footage of the aftermath of the Soviet Katyn Massacre of 21,000+ Polish citizens in 1940. This just begins to touch what you'll experience, and although I consider myself a very open minded individual, I must admit I just had to turn away from the screen on a few occasions.

The film also contains some dark humor and opens on what could have easily been a skit from Monty Python. A beauty contest is being held to find “the most desirable, prominent, and well-preserved virgin.” Miss Canada (Carole Laure) claims the prize which is to marry Mr. Kapital, the milk tycoon, played by John Vernon (Animal House’s Dean Vernon Wormer). That night, as their honeymoon begins, he goes through an elborate cleansing process before urinating on her with his golden penis. She tries to escape and is helped by a black servant, who abuses her before he smuggles her away to Paris, by literally stuffing her in a suitcase. She meets El Macho (Sami Frey), a Latin pop star, and are instantly attracted to one another. They become locked together while having intercourse on the Eiffel Tower and must be carted away in tandem by the medics. Later Miss Canada falls in with an anarchist commune. The commune practices some liberating sessions, where a member, with the assistance of the others, goes through a (re)birth experience, cries, urinates and defecates like a baby, while the others are cleaning and pampering him or her. When last we see Miss Canada, she is seen acting for an obscene advertisement, where she masturbates covered in liquid chocolate, the culmination of the comingling of sex and capital in her life.

This story is interspersed with another involving Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal) piloting the candy-boat Survival through Amsterdam’s canals, with a papier-mache head of Karl Marx on the prow. After taking a sailor on as passenger, Planeta seduces him and then stabs him through the heart as they frolic in a bin filled with sugar. Later, she woos children on board and they meet a similar fate. We later see their tiny bodies, wrapped in plastic by the police, but they experience an unexplained resurrection and wander off from their bodies.

Looking back on the movie, I can't help to notice all of the fairy tale/myth motives and themes that run throughout the story, (ironic coming after my review of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty".) Isn't the "most desirable and pure virgin" contest that begins the film just symbolic of all the fairest of the fair princesses that star in any children's tale. The "princess" is then handed over to the "evil prince/king" which she must flee from and find her own happiness. While on her journey she'll encounter strange people or creatures that may bring their own horrors. Even the secondary story reminds me of Hansel and Gretel. In this case the "witch" entices boys/men to board her boat filled with sugar, candy and sex only to kill them for her own pleasure. But this is a fairy tale for adults, with mature imaginary and horrors. It's difficult to fully comprehend everything that is going on, and I feel there is much more happening than I understand. There seems to be a major political undercurrent, with symbols always present in the background of scenes, or in some cases (Karl Marx's head on the boat) right in front of us. But without a complete knowledge of European Political History is lost on me.

I can understand why many people revile this film and its excesses, and it would be difficult for me to recommend this film to the majority of people. Understand that you are entering a nightmare and that you will be disturbed. With that said, I must also add that there are scenes from this movie that still haunt me to this day, for either its surreal beauty or tormented debauchery. "Despite the bitching and grousing, Sweet Movie is an important film that takes many measured risks. Watching it more than three decades after its release, one can only be reminded that today’s filmic efforts suffer from more repression and censorship than was the case in the 1970s." But you have been warned, enter at your own risk.

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