Revisiting Sweet Movie (1974)
Most politics in film end up coded, oblique, and vague, and not without reason. The direct, didactic political message can be bracing, but more often than not it doesn’t seem to hold up for posterity very well; the specifics of time get forgotten. The major stories of politics each day end up as nothing more than footnotes the vast majority of the time. When you want your message to be appealing, powerful, and understandable for future generations, it often serves you poorly to be specific. Even as someone who is moderately well versed in American history, I found myself often lost watching Secret Honor, Robert Altman’s one actor movie of Richard Nixon’s private breakdown. The broad strokes made sense, and I was able to glean plenty from it (and Philip Baker Hall giving the performance of a lifetime helped things greatly), but the specifics are lost to the time it was made, a certain cultural moment. In the mind of people like Harold Bloom (noted literary critic and ridiculous man), this is a crime above all others; art should hold steady across cultures and times they say, hermetically sealed in a sterile environment where it does not grow or change with context. Harold Bloom strikes me as the kind of man who would love Bill Pullman’s speech at the end of Independence Day.
Unfortunately, the broad approach, while maybe holding for the Big Questions (why are we here, what is love, what’s the coolest way to watch a spaceship explode), is often useless for politics. Despite ideology’s best attempts, context is what defines politics; when it’s removed, you end up with unmoored ideals ill-suited towards any discussion deeper than “freedom seems pretty cool”. But specificity is off-putting and sectarian by nature, divisive and factional. Not so good for pulling in the kinds of audiences that justify the expensive nature of most films. So we end up with scores of toothless politics, vague speeches about “freedom”, whatever that means, movies that are scared of throwing half (or more) the audience out in the cold. It says quite a bit that the film 300, so clearly, nakedly political (and often very strictly adapted from a comic by noted reactionary Frank Miller), can be successfully read as either pro-America or pro-insurgency; when politics become one-size-fits-all, they cease to mean much of anything.
Sweet Movie is not one-size-fits-all. It is not vague, and it doesn’t spoon-feed the audience platitudes while shying away from specific, real world references. Sweet Movie is staunchly, defiantly of its time, and it’s angrily, brutally cutting in its attacks of both broad ideologies and specific figures (if you’re not versed enough in political and philosophical theory to recognize the name Bakunin offhand, the movie would almost certainly be close to incomprehensible at times). But in its specificity there’s real beauty and insight to be found; after countless wishy-washy films about corruption in politics, it’s refreshing to see a film willing to name names and pull out the big guns. When the capitalist Texas milk industry tycoon is urinating on his new wife who he won from a televised contest to find the world’s most perfect virgin, there’s no mistaking Sweet Movie for the kind of film that takes half-measures.
Sweet Movie follows two women along a series of picaresque adventures, one roughly representing capitalism and the other roughly representing communism (though it should be said that these lines become blurred later in the movie as the happenings gets more unsettling). One woman, Miss Canada, enters and wins the contest to find the most virginal woman in the world, and she passes between a series of men who continually degrade, humiliate, and hurt her, treating her entirely as property, as a commodity to be acquired and discarded as they see fit. The other storyline follows a woman named Anna, a failed communist revolutionary turned boat captain who practices free love (with all the love removed) and threatens anyone who might feel affection for her. The two women go about their journeys and end up in the same communal house, where a collective of people seem to focus day in and day out on personal liberation (and filth creation).
The loose plot ultimately serves as little more than a way to move the women between allegorical and metaphorical situations, each a pile of imagery and symbolism both incredibly obvious and subtly powerful. At first, the film is almost entirely a comedy; Miss Canada’s adventures have a heightened satirical quality to them, as when the milk tycoon makes a speech to his servants about his new wife and how good she will be as a purification system for his waste, as a way to save time and make more money. It’s both incredibly on the nose and uproariously funny, absurd but sad all at once. Going to bed for the first night, he cleans them both off thoroughly with isopropyl alcohol before pulling out his gold-covered penis and urinating all over his new wife while she screams in terror and his mother (who organized the contest in the first place) looks on in proud approval. Understandably, this upsets Miss Canada, but when she expresses her disgust and disapproval the mother and family lawyer deem her insane, unable to legally receive any divorce settlement. It’s all very funny, but also pointed and cutting, mocking the degradation involved in capitalism and its hatred of the non-commoditized body (especially the body of a woman). Any woman who would want to escape this suffering is called crazy, unable to make her own decisions properly; to not want capitalism is grounds for commitment to a sanitarium. It’s both a defense mechanism against dissent and a natural, organic evolution of the ideology, completely unable to understand the viewpoint of someone who disagrees with it. It’s all a farce, but a farce that is torturing this young woman.
In contrast, we find Anna free and beautiful, happy, jovial, singing of freedom on her ship filled with candy. A young man fresh from the armed forces makes his way onto the boat, and they become loveless lovers; she tells him if he ever falls for her, it will be his end. These scenes amble along, seemingly oblivious to the constraints of time in cinema; held shots, displacing editing, songs buoyed by hand-made icons, a ramshackle overbearing explosion of symbols and meaning. The cutout heads of communist leaders grace every wall of the ship along with newspaper cutouts and a million advertisements, clashing ideologies subsumed in the chaos of escape from the terrible world outside. At least initially, this boat is painted as an oasis from suffering, full of sugar and sex and music and joy, the dream of communist revolution fulfilled in the guise of anarchist communities. In film terms, it is a sweepingly romantic reprieve from the degrading satire that Miss Canada experiences, all big music cues and insinuations of star-crossed lovers falling into the ecstasy of each other despite their best efforts to the contrary.
It is the film’s second half, however, that makes Sweet Movie more than a hilarious but simplistic pro-communist leaflet, where its breezy tone turns sinister and upsetting. To be frank, the first time I saw Sweet Movie was in high school after I glimpsed its name on a list of “most disturbing films” (gorehound I was and still am, but without the refinement of ideas and purpose), and throughout the first half I could hardly see why it belonged on there with the likes of the Guinea Pig films; maybe a puritanical revulsion to sex and naked bodies, but there was nothing upsetting about its general disposition. There didn’t seem to be a mean bone in its body; it was a comedic farce, and sex farces with progressive politics are hardly what I’d call disturbing. However, the second half brought it in line with another transgressive masterpiece of the era, Pier Paolo Passolini’s Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, as a powerful and upsetting critique of cultural norms and the implications therein. And it all begins with our communist revolutionary, Anna, in a white dress.
Smiling, her usual blissful self, Anna leads a gaggle of children (none seemingly more than 12 years old) onto her boat of pleasure, away from the outside world and, crucially, away from the eyes of their parents and society. Feeding them candy and letting them eat freely from her massive, swaying trough of sugar, she exits the room only to return in a sexual perversion of a wedding dress, the sheer white material falling off her breasts and groin as she dances and sways around the children, caressing them and them caressing her. In an extended scene that drastically shifts the tone of the film, she wordlessly contorts her increasingly nude body around the children as the camera pulls tighter and tighter, displacing body parts in the space and cutting them up in editing. As the music swells in waves, the children emptily place her discarded garments on themselves, a veil here, a glove there, as she grabs their hands and touches her body with them in a grotesque, pedophilic display. She seduces them and destroys their innocence, frighteningly never losing her beatific smile, before she beds them (implied, not shown). Suddenly, the woman who seemed to offer a reprieve from the gruesome, disgusting world outside shows her own politics to be, at best, tools towards her own selfish ends, and at worst amoral rationalizations of evil behavior. Her refreshing lack of inhibitions towards sex is twisted into something that is ugly and cruel, the pleasantness of her earlier actions a seduction of the audience towards similar ends.
Meanwhile, Miss Canada has continued her odyssey, being passed between three men (the milk baron, his servant who carries her in a bag, and a singer/actor who she ends up stuck to like a dog when they have sex), and finally, she’s been broken down completely. As the singer/actor pantlessly serenades the chefs of the kitchen in which the two were unstuck by a bespectacled doctor (it’s a long story), she smashes eggs on her head, staring at him as he cries, his glittery makeup shining like his glassy eyes. Destroying the eggs, she is rejecting the continuation of life, the cycle of birth and death, destroying the potential for its continuation. It’s where her story shifts from hilarious satire to despairing tragedy, her eyes emptied of the joy and hope they stored previously even in the darkest of circumstances; the world has defeated her, turned her into an anti-natalist. Capitalism and commodity culture have ended her ability to conceive of a world better than this one, a world she can see as only holding pain and torment.
Carried in a wheelbarrow, Miss Canada ends up arriving catatonic at an anarchist commune, treated like a baby as she is breastfed in an oversized hanging crib, her eyes devoid of the thought of conscious being. At the dinner table, she stares into space as her self-appointed caretakers shove food in her mouth while others at the table laugh and scream, throw food at each other, retch and vomit continuously, pee all over the others, and otherwise act uninhibited and debased, free of any kind of moral code, let alone manners or sense of propriety. It is not a coincidence that, although the two women never interact, Anna is also at this commune, partaking in their grotesqueries with abandon and glee. The audience follows their day-to-day life as Miss Canada continues to apathetically look on, collapsed on whatever furniture they’ve put underneath her to offer some kind of support. The communes’ caring of her is juxtaposed with their own childish actions, screaming and mewling, never a silent second, singing “Ode to Joy” over a plate of freshly dropped shit. It’s an obvious metaphor, but one that has the necessary strength to cut through the purposeful cacophony; in their acceptance and love of everything, the community lacks the discretion to see sustenance from waste. At the same time, Anna kills the soldier from earlier, stabbing him to death post-coitus in their bed of sugar, and the police pull the bodies of the dead children Anna seduced from the river. The capitalist world destroyed Miss Canada, Anna’s communism is murderous and predatory, and the anarchist collective is all sound and fury signifying little more than their own self-obsession. After the commune is broken up by Anna’s arrest, Miss Canada returns to the economy, seen some time later covered naked in chocolate and writhing around for an advertisement. The director tells her that the goal is to make the consumer want to consume her, the idea of sex, of sugar, of sexual revolution, after paying their 50 cents for a candy bar. She rubs herself against the waves of chocolate until she is totally covered in it, her empty eyes staring into the camera as she prostitutes herself to commerce. The communist revolutionary’s boat filled with sugar, our defeated hero pornographically immersed in sugar herself: it all comes from the same sweet impulse, an undisciplined search for pleasure.
If the film ended here, it would be little more than a nihilistic and indifferent skewering of ideology, of the pointlessness of happiness and the search for a politic that could serve people properly. Capitalism failed us, and liberation from capitalism failed as well; all of it turned into an indifferent mass of suffering, of pain, of human weakness and evil. Throughout the film, we see real footage from the discovery of the Katyn massacre, dead and rotting bodies splayed across massive fields, making direct the comparison between war and these people, the chocolate advertisement the result of the same culture that causes such senseless, brutal tragedies. But if that is the entire point, what are we to make of the final scene of the film, where the dead children, wrapped in plastic, far away from the undifferentiated mass of adults, wake from their death at the hands of the failed revolution?
Here’s my go at it: all of the politics displayed, the seemingly incompatible and different ideologies, created both by the oppressors and the oppressed, were all based in exploitation, unable to remove themselves from the central tenant of global commerce. The communist revolutionary is unable to extricate herself from the decrepitude of the world, and as such her revolution is really just an enactment of the same values; the relationships between people, between their bodies, isn’t something that can be changed by sexual repression or liberation, as both approaches keep the same relationships and interactions, merely changing their interpretations of this relationship; the ideas of sex as control and power, as violence and the reaction to violence, have not been removed. The body is still a vessel for ideas, instead of the idea as a vessel for the body. The anarchists come closest, but they fear deeply a recreation of these relationships and in their cowardice regress to childhood, praising everything and discriminating against nothing. They have no means to keep the murderous Anna out of their peace, and no way of keeping Miss Canada from falling back into the clutches of capitalism. These reactions were done by social conditioning, the difficulty of removing oneself from the culture one grew up in and learned from. To define a new form of interaction means more than changing a viewpoint. It requires not revision but entirely new materials.
This, of course, is difficult, maybe impossible. The ideas of the free market and free trade lead to consolidation of power and the destruction of the meritocracy that forms capitalism’s central myth. The ideas of the communist revolution gave way to dictatorship and the deaths of untold people in reaction to its failures. The occasional anarchist commune dissolves quickly, unable to sustain its own being against the onslaught of the outside world. But the children- resurrected from death at the hands of sweetness- will take another chance. They will devise something new. Maybe from the mistakes of the past, they can form something out of all of this death and dying. Unlikely, sure, but the possibility still exists. Viewed today, Sweet Movie can’t help but look dated, but in its incredible specificity, it attempts something honest, real, and powerful that hundreds of speeches about freedom before the bad guy is defeated do not. It points away from the past and towards some new horizon. The future cannot stay dead, and its possibilities will not be slain by the ideas of the past.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.
June 4, 2023 at 5:17 am
I think this is a great analysis, although as an anarchist I can’t help but point out that the ideas associated with anarchism in the film are uncharacteristic of most revolutionary anarchists. Anarchists desire liberation from all forms of domination but that is done through concrete steps of social organization. It doesn’t mean accepting everything, because there is absolutely no reason for people to do that. It means you’re free from systemic inequalities and have equal opportunity. People will still determine what they find acceptible and not acceptible and social norms will exist because that is the nature of human society. I think the idea of anarchism as a simplistic chase after absolute freedom is a complete and pervasive mischaracterisation. It is as concrete an organizational project as Marxist communism, just avoiding the pitfalls of hierarchy and centralization that recreate capitalist-like oppression.