WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971)
Dusan Makavejev has the greatest name in all filmdom. I get it stuck in my head on a regular basis. Which has absolutely nothing to do with WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Makavejev's best-known film and one that appears on an impressive number of thousand-best lists, as well as in Roger Ebert's book Great Movies. Makavejev took a page from Vilgot Sjoman's I Am Curious and spliced documentary with sex comedy, but where Sjoman's flick is an unwatchable mess that takes itself way too seriously, Makavejev's gets the spice blend just right and comes up with a winner. It took over three decades for the film to find its way to a widely-available American DVD (thank you, Criterion), but it was well worth the wait.
The documentary portion is about Wilhelm Reich, German philosopher and nutcase who built his entire philosophy around the idea of sexual freedom being related to a (non-existent) substance called orgone. (Reich's books on the subjects of both sexuality and orgone have been in print on and off ever since he wrote them, and shouldn't be hard to find at all; they make for highly amusing reading if you're a philosophy geek.) The Reich Foundation and Reichians around the globe had about the same reaction to it as did Makavejev's own government, who banned it in record time after its release. And to be fair to them, it's hard not to imagine the irrepressible Makavejev not snickering behind his hand in the editing room as he was cutting this flick. Then again, you've got to wonder how the subjects felt after viewing Errol Morris' far more serious Gates of Heaven.
The fictional bit is a classic tale of two friends who over the years have become very different, done Soviet-style-- one has become a rampant Socialist activist, while the other has become a crusader for sexual freedom. (Actually, the bits where the two philosophies collide and meld into one at an impromptu rally are far more convincing, if less realistic, than the documentary portions of the film.) The party girl has an affair with a famous Russian ice skater (cue huge amounts of subtext here), while her politically motivated friend tries to warn her away. Given the relationship between Russia and Yugoslavia, which is at the heart of Makavejev's film (both parts; Reich, whose philosophy attempted to unite Freudianism and Marxism, was castigated by Stalin), you know from the beginning that this cannot end well. The only suspense to be found is in wondering just how badly things will go. Which means you're sitting there watching a funny, sexy film and just waiting for the shoe to drop-- so that when it does, the effect is all the more devastating despite you knowing it's coming.
Deeply felt, powerful, and well worth watching even if you know nothing whatsoever about Soviet politics during the Cold War. ****