Sweet Movie is a 1974 political satire by Dusan Makavejev, director of the notorious WR - Mysteries of the Organism. The film cuts between two separate stories, each focussing on a female character. One story concerns a Canadian beauty queen who escapes from her rich but perverted husband to live with an anarchic Austrian commune, led by the notorious artist Otto Muehl. The other story concerns a woman, Anna Planeta, who sails her barge (bearing a massive Karl Marx head) around the canals of Amsterdam. She uses confectionary to trap children, who she seduces and then apparently kills.
The film was first seen by the BBFC on 1 April 1975. An examiner commented that 'Visually it is brilliant though whatever political theme it may have is not too clear. Its fantasies and imagery remind one of the work of Jodorowski [sic]. But whereas his films can and have been cut [El Topo and The Holy Mountain] we see no possibility of doing so here. There are far too many episodes, sequences and scenes which go far beyond anything we have allowed to date, in several areas. For example: reel 4. There is a crowd of rough characters in some sort of warehouse. They have a meal, eat like pigs, frequently vomit, piss on the table, shit onto plates which are handed around in jubilation. A man opens his flies. He produces an ox tongue as if it were a huge penis. He then proceeds, yelling, to chop sections off. A woman (and central character) then takes out his real penis and in several intercut shots, fondles and kisses it. A man who has gorged himself too much is seen naked on a bed being pummelled in the stomach, the object being to make him have a movement of the bowels. He screams in pain. Suddenly we see him covered in his own excrement and being cleaned up. He is powdered and, legs open, he urinates. The man gets off his bed, bows, and we see the whole company waltzing about naked. Compare all this with Blow Out [which had recently been refused a classification by the BBFC, in part for its focus on excretory functions] and the latter seems very small beer indeed, though the two films are not really comparable at all. We therefore recommend rejection. And since we feel the President ought to see it, he [and] the Sec[retary] should view it together'.
Accordingly, the film was viewed again by the BBFC Secretary, Stephen Murphy, and the President, Lord Harlech. They agreed there was no prospect of classification and, in a letter to the distributor, Murphy noted: 'I regret that we are unable to offer certification for this film: nor can we see how it can be cut to make it acceptable to us. We accept that it is a film of some seriousness of purpose: though also of some obscurity. Nevertheless, in many respect, it goes beyond the standards of taste which the Board is currently prepared to accept'. It was particularly regrettable to Stephen Murphy that the film could not be classified in any form, given that he had classified Makavejev's previous film, WR - Mysteries of the Organism at X without cuts in 1971. That film had been notable, amongst other things, for a sequence in which a plaster cast is made of a man's erect penis and for some brief shots of unsimulated sexual penetration, the first to be permitted by the BBFC.
Subsequent to the rejection of Sweet Movie, James Ferman took over as Secretary of the BBFC (a position later renamed 'Director'). Inevitably, the arrival of a new Secretary with new ideas led to fresh enquiries about the film. In 1978, Connoisseur Films approached the BBFC, having being offered the rights to the film. They enquired about whether there was any prospect of the film being classified. There is no record in the BBFC's files of what James Ferman told the company, although there is a note that he spoke to them about it on 10 January 1978. Given that the film was never formally submitted, we can only assume that he discouraged the company. Of course, one of the chief problems with the film in 1975 had been the issue of taste and offensiveness, specifically in relation to the film's focus on vomiting, urination and defecation. However, the introduction of the Protection of Children Act in 1978 raised a significant further problem with the film and this may well have been key to James Ferman's decision to discourage a resubmission at that time.
The Protection of Children Act 1978 created a new offence of making and distributing ‘indecent’ images of children under the age of 16 (the age bar was subsequently raised to 18 in 2003).
One key scene in Sweet Movie shows Anna Planeta performing a kind of strip tease in front of several children who she has lured onto her barge. Although the children themselves are fully clothed and nothing directly sexual happens, the manner in which Anna Planeta drapes her discarded garments over the children, as well as her close proximity to them when naked (the children are clearly in the same shot), raised potential problems in terms of whether these could be considered ‘indecent’ images of children. Of course, the Protection of Children Act was brand new in 1978 and there was no case law concerning what juries would be likely to find legally indecent. However, the BBFC’s position at the time was to take a very cautious line on any potential indecency involving children, leading to cuts to well known and acclaimed films such as Taxi Driver, Pretty Baby and The Tin Drum. Although those films have since been classified uncut, because it is now far clearer how the law is applied in practice, the BBFC’s initial cautiousness in this matter meant that Sweet Movie now faced additional potential difficulties beyond mere offensiveness.
This was confirmed when the film was formally submitted by a new distributor, Lazer Films, in 1980. On this occasion, an examiner noted 'It’s easy to see why the film was rejected in 1975, though I think with the cuts I have suggested on a separate sheet the film could be passed now. The film is clearly not meant to be seen in realistic terms. Makavejev is out to startle and shock, his style ironic and critical. I confess to not understanding all the references, which perhaps require a knowledge of Communism, Yugoslavia, Makavejev, and politics in general which I do not possess. But I don’t see any reason to bar anyone from the film and I think cutting should be kept to a minimum'. In particular, examiners suggested that cuts should be made to remove any potentially indecent images from the Anna Planeta scene (which had not been an issue in 1975), to remove the 'whole sequence in which three men crap in competition and then show it to crowd', and to remove some of the more extreme open-leg shots towards the end of the film, in which Carol Laure wallows in liquid chocolate. [Laure herself had earlier fought a legal battle to have these shots suppressed].
It was conceded by examiners that certain other scenes, most notably the scene in which Miss Canada’s husband urinates directly onto her, were very strong. However, it was felt that these scenes could not be cut without ruining the meaning of the film. As one examiner commented: 'There has to be a reason for the girl’s horrified screams and for her demands for a divorce. I think, therefore, we would be justified in leaving them in. Equally, the shots of Carol Laure holding a peasant’s penis against her face during the Bacchanalia are important for they affirm at least some vestiges of humanity in the coarse depredations of the spirit which are taking place around her'. However, in spite of negotiations between the BBFC and the distributor, the film was simply withdrawn from the classification process, possibly because of the difficulty of making cuts, in particular to the Anna Planeta sequence.
Subsequent to 1980, a handful of distributors have made (largely informal) enquiries as to whether the film might be acceptable for video release, including Recorded Releasing in 1986. However, during James Ferman’s time at the BBFC, all such enquiries were met with a response that the film was simply too difficult, in terms of taste, offensiveness and The Protection of Children Act, and that it would be too difficult to cut. Accordingly, there has been no formal submission of Sweet Movie since 1980. To this day, the film has never received a BBFC certificate for cinema or video release and remains commercially unavailable and very rarely screened in the UK.