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Sweet Movie: The Criterion Collection

One of the super-secret, unspoken rules of film criticism is that a reviewer must never, ever admit that they just don't "get" a movie. On the rare occasions that we're utterly baffled by a film, we're still supposed to give a critique that sounds like we know what we're talking about. This is why some critics will trash perfectly good films that are challenging or experimental — saying something is bad is a lot easier than saying that you're confused, and it still allows you to look smart. Nonetheless, this reviewer's willing to go out on a limb and say that she was completely befuddled by Sweet Movie (1975), an nigh unto indescribable film from Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev (1971's W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism). The film offers two storylines. In the first, an American oil tycoon named Mr. Kapital (John Vernon, Animal House's Dean Wormer) holds a competition to find the world's "most desirable, prominent, and well-preserved virgin" for reasons of hygiene, and chooses Miss Canada (Carole Laure) after a doctor salaciously examines all the contestants. On their wedding night, Mr. Kapital wipes her down with rubbing alcohol and then, after terrifying her with his enormous, gold-painted erection, pees on her. Unsurprisingly, Miss Canada tries to flee the marriage, but instead finds herself abducted by a large black bodybuilder named Mr. Muscle, who rapes her in a room located inside a giant milk bottle and then ships her off zipped inside a suitcase. In the other plot, a ship sails the canals of Amsterdam with a enormous bust of Karl Marx on its prow, atop which stands Captain Ann (Anna Prucnal), wrapped in a heavy coat. A young sailor on a bicycle repeatedly tries to flag a ride, and when he finally is allowed on the ship, he announces that he's her new lover. After a quick bout of sex, they sing a song about communism and liberty.

Frankly, none of it makes a lick of sense, although the last third of the film is intriguing simply because one has no way of knowing what will happen next. Capt. Ann and her sailor make love in a huge pile of sugar while a white mouse crawls over their bodies, then she stabs him with a large knife and he laughs as he watches the blood pool. Black-and-white documentary footage of the 1943 excavation of the mass graves in Smolensk leads into Miss Canada's arrival at the Eiffel Tower, where she has public sex with a dashing mariachi singer and then joins a freaky commune populated by distinctly deranged people. The whole thing ends with her dunked in a vat of melted chocolate for a TV commercial. The Criterion Collection's DVD release includes a booklet with an essay by film critic David Sterritt, who talks about the political messages of the picture and the influence of Eisenstein, Godard and Brecht on Makavajev's work, and it's probable that every single word he writes is absolutely true. But between the shock of seeing Dean Wormer's erect penis and the disconcerting surrealism of the movie as a whole, all we can say is that we're utterly at a loss to explain what the hell Sweet Movie is about.

The Criterion Collection does another smashing job as far as the restoration and presentation of the movie goes, with a stunning anamorphic ( 1.66:1) high-def digital transfer and excellent DD monaural sound (the film's dialogue is a mix of English, French and Serbo-Croation, with optional English subtitles for the non-English scenes). Extras include new interviews with Makavajev (22 min.) and film scholar Dina Iordonova (20 min.) both of which make the intent of Sweet Movie a little more clear, even if the film itself remains confusing. There's also a clip from a 1979 French television show featuring Prucnal (4 min.) who describes the film as Makavajev's "fantasy about [psychiatrist] Wilhem Reich," talks about how she was banned from her native Poland for five years following the film's release, and sings a song from the movie. The package also includes a booklet with the essay by Sterritt and another by Harvard professor Stanley Cowell. Keep case.
—Dawn Taylor

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