Directed by Dušan Makavejev
Screenplay by Dušan Makavejev, Donald Arthur and Branko Vucicevic
Runtime: 1 hr, 31 min
I’m going to level with you here: I was kind of frightened to watch this film. I’ve not watched any of Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev’s other films, but as a fan of the Internet video series Brows Held High, I did have a passing familiarity with his work. From watching the episodes on W. R.: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie (both NSFW), I gleaned that Makavejev’s oeuvre was both nonsensical and sickening. Yet, I had also heard good things about one of his more conventional films, so I took a deep breath, pressed play…and had a wonderful time.
Montenegro, despite the title, is actually set in Sweden, while the main character is an American. Marilyn Jordan (Susan Anspach) is a frustrated and bored housewife, married to Swedish businessman Martin (Erland Josephson). Marilyn feels trapped in her domestic life, but does not have proper way to vent her frustrations. At first she engages in behavior that ranges from strange to borderline psychotic, which eventually raises Martin’s suspicions. He has a psychiatrist (Per Oscarsson) analyze her, but it is to no avail.
I have not yet begun to describe this plot. This is one element of Montenegro that delights me; the plot relies on so many ridiculous contingencies to move forward. So: the Jordan family accidentally calls to two taxis to take Martin to the airport. Marilyn decides to take the second in order to travel with Martin, but she gets detained by security over gardening shears. She just so happens to meet a woman emigrating from Yugoslavia; with nowhere to go and not knowing Martin missed the flight waiting for her, she joins her party and ends up at “Zanzi-Bar”, a combination commune and strip-club.
A rational story, I’m sure you will all agree. Yet insanity, both clinical and situational, lies at the heart of Montenegro. Sometimes, it’s played for laughs, as is the case with the scenes at Zanzi-Bar, including a remote controlled tank with a phallus for a gun turret (I never thought I would have to write that). But during the film’s first half, the madness draws sympathy. The audience can tell that Marilyn is not happy with her husband and home life, but it is difficult to determine whether her attempts to poison the dog and set the bed on fire are acts of rebellion or of a woman losing her grip on reason.
Whatever state her character actually is in, I must argue for a round of applause for Anspach; her performance is phenomenal. She embodies so many emotions all at once: delirium, anger, despair, curiosity. Given both the loveless environment he lives in and the ridiculous world of Zanzi-Bar she moves into, such confused feelings are expected and delivered expertly. Though her early scenes come close to being silly (the way she eats all the family’s Wiener schnitzel sticks out), Anspach is consistently a fascinating screen presence. The other players are wonderful, too, but all pale in comparison.
Aside from the group of Yugoslav immigrants, why is this movie is called Montenegro? It turns out that a man who calls himself Montenegro (Svetozar Cvetkovic) becomes Marilyn’s love interest over the course of the film. Cvetkovic is one of the weaker actors in the film, and the chemistry between Montenegro and Marilyn is very shallow, but that’s kind of the point. Montenegro is Marilyn’s sexual liberator; he is largely an object of lust that gives her an avenue to express her own frustrations, but it is abundantly clear that any future between the two would not end well.
Given the lustiness of their scenes together, it’s surprising that the consummation of Marilyn and Montenegro’s attraction is not the most explicit part of the film. Then again, at least compared to what I’ve seen of W. R. and Sweet Movie, I was shocked by how restrained Montenegro is. There is no nudity whatsoever until the start of the third act, and even then it only pops up sporadically. A sequence involving the phallic tank and a stripper at Zanzi-Bar does carry a lot of connotations of sexual assault, but it’s clearly part of an act and the rest of the film is rather tame.
Makavejev does make some choices in the picture that don’t quite work. For one, the use of Marianne Faithfull’s version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”—written by Shel Silverstein of all people—is, while, thematically appropriate, far too on the nose play over the opening credits. Also, there’s this odd international motif in the film which Makavejev plays up: an American woman, living in Sweden, meets a group of immigrants from Yugoslavia who live in Zanzi-Bar and for some reason flew there on a Japan Airlines flight. Maybe Makavejev had a grand statement in mind, but the juxtapositions are just off.
Those, obviously, are nitpicks. Montenegro is such an enrapturing film that I kind of feel guilty for being so skeptical of it. Makavejev knows how to get the pathos out of film and while he has an affinity for the weird, the bizarre, and the use of gratuitous nudity, his finished product is never boring but always enticing. This doesn’t mean that I’m in any rush to watch Sweet Movie; filmed defecation is several lines too far. But I definitely come out this experience respecting him as a storyteller.