Dušan Makavejev’s Dreams of Butterflies

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When Dušan Makavejev premiered Sweet Movie in 1974, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Taking a different tack from his previous release, Makavejev upped the ante in almost every possible way – in humor, in radicalism, and especially in shock value.

This is saying quite a lot, because by all accounts Makavejev’s previous release, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, one part documentary about radical socialist sexologist Wilhelm Reich, plus two parts Reich’s theories put into practice, had its fair share of shock value.

And so it goes without saying: censors banned Makavejev’s Sweet Movie in a number of countries, including the U.K.

For all the notable elements it weaves into its pastiche, such as the surprisingly well-known actor John Vernon, and the controversial on-screen demonstrations of the even more controversial performance artist Otto Muehl‘s psychotherapy, the film serves well for our purposes here – specifically in two key sections: the beginning and the end.

The first segment of Sweet Movie concerns itself with the “Miss World 1984” pageant… and the satire has already begun. The Miss World pageant exists in the real world, to this day. However, leaving aside the fantastical idea that a pageant should decide the best woman to represent the entire world, Makavejev takes the pageant idea a step further, in having it sponsored by the “Chastity Belt Foundation.”

A “Chastity Belt Foundation” serves as a platform running counter to Makavejev’s previous Wilhelm Reich in every way. The chairwoman of the foundation ultimately seeks a bride for her son, the richest bachelor in the world (played by Vernon). She finds this bride in Miss Canada, whose prize for winning the pageant equals access to the son’s fortune.

A noteworthy scene in this satire occurs on the couple’s honeymoon during a helicopter ride over Canada. As we see a beautiful overhead shot of Niagra Falls, Mr. Dollars, as the billionaire bachelor is known, explains his plans for the famous natural landmark, beginning in his charming Southern gentleman drawl, “You see that little fountain down there?”

Mr. Dollars plans to buy it from the government, and turn it into “landscape architecture” by “redecorating” it and “turning off the falls. […] I’m gonna install an electronic, synthetic, laser-moving image in living color!” It will have “huge quadraphonic sound systems… of the roaring water,” and be “unaffected by weather conditions.” Like much of the rest of the film, this scene simply happens, without direct context or specific judgment.

One of the best qualities of Sweet Movie lies in Makavejev’s happiness to simply let things take place. In an interview on the Criterion DVD, he even says of the last scene, he didn’t want to make it “too specific,” only “pleasant.” This, in a movie featuring people forcibly vomiting their dinners up and the documented aftermath of the Katyn Forest massacre. But remarkably, it works – in a couple of ways.

First, Sweet Movie deals in satire. Vernon’s drawling good ol’ boy delivery, especially on lines like “that little fountain down there,” makes the satirical element apparent. Miss World 1984 finding herself stuck in a “love cramp” on the Eiffel Tower drives the effect home. And as satire, it calls our attention to genuine concerns.

While the idea of replacing Niagara Falls with a touristy facsimile seems crazy, the idea of big money interests manufacturing nature isn’t so farfetched – witness the artificial islands in Qatar and UAE. From this perspective, the content of the film delivers interesting ideas.

There is a lot of action in Sweet Movie…. I’ll spare the details – as a film, it should be seen (at one’s discretion, perhaps not with in-laws) – but the very end nevertheless deserves a note here. It involves a resurrection of sorts. While that metaphor shouldn’t go unnoticed, Makavejev produces a scene (which I’ll leave un-described so as not to spoil it) which he likens to butterflies rising out of cocoons, continuing a cycle. And then the credits roll.

Makavejev’s butterfly metaphor is more apt than it may seem at first. It recalls a famous parable told by the ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who dreamed that he was a butterfly. In the dream, he lived happily and completely as a butterfly. When he awoke, he became Zhuang Zhou (as he’s called in the story) once again.

But then Zhou realized that he didn’t know if he had dreamed he was a butterfly, or if the butterfly had dreamed that it was Zhou. One of the ideas that we can draw from this allegory focuses on the equal value of both states – dream and reality (or vice versa, for that matter).

In Daoism Explained, Hans-Georg Moeller elaborates on this idea:

“Both phases are equally authentic or real because each does not remember the other. Because the butterfly does not know about Zhou, it is ‘self-content.’ Because Zhou does not remember his dream he is ‘fully and completely Zhou’ – and without any doubts! Since Zhou and the butterfly do not remember each other, because the barrier between them is not crossed, the change between them is seamless, spontaneous, and natural!”

This barrier helps to explain the potency of Makavejev’s method in Sweet Movie. Like the butterfly and Zhou, the Miss World pageant takes on the same importance as a scene featuring bodily functions executed during a meal, or even footage taken after a horrible massacre.

Similarly, while we understand the Niagra Falls redevelopment plan as satire, when put together with another satirical scene – say, Miss World rolling around naked in a vat of chocolate for a chocolate commercial – the overall effect on the viewer approaches another level of surrealism. The dreamlike quality of these juxtapositions – without judgment or explanation – has a stronger and more penetrating effect than straightforward comedic satire.

One could even argue that the singular viewing of the film functions like the butterfly dream. Just as Zhou wakes up from the dream not sure whether he “is” Zhou or the butterfly, one “wakes up” from a viewing of Sweet Movie not really sure….

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(Both images are public domain, from pixabay)
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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.