The best shot in WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) is also the worst. Before you have a clue who they'll turn out to be, three characters (a Yugoslav soldier, a romping sexpot, and a stubborn blonde with some provocative ideas about improving upon the revolution) crowd around an egg yolk and hand it back and forth among themselves in a slightly dirty variation on hot potato. The yolk is yellow and slippery, a little sac of obscenely concentrated nutrients protected by a delicate membrane. This can't end well. It's going to burst. Here is suspense of the stupidest, most delightful kind. Finally the yolk explodes and the scene devolves into some sort of sticky, jaundiced hand orgy.
Setting aside the boring question of whether this judgment reveals something essential about anticipation and release (or—god forbid—something particular about my attitude toward sex), this scene tells you all you need to know about Yugoslav writer-director-provocateur Dusan Makavejev. He's very smart. Then he goes too far. And then he wriggles around in the mess he's made.
WR: Mysteries of the Organism starts out as a straightforward, if eccentric, documentary about the later life of Austrian psychoanalyst-turned-orgasm booster Wilhelm Reich, who fled Nazi Germany only to be imprisoned in the United States for charges relating to his promotion of exuberant pseudoscience. Soon we see his acolytes mimicking orgasmic breathing patterns, barking demanding sexual mantras, fluttering their hips, and generally doing anything and everything except letting their hands make contact with their genitals. Meanwhile, Reich's former grocer and barber testify to his behavior out on the town.
As the documentary trickles out, Makavejev turns his attention to a fictional plot about the previously mentioned Yugoslavs, culminating in a scene where the sex-positive revolutionary comes on to a frigid Russian male ice-skater, whose initial response is to smack her. Then he makes out with her, and then (thankfully off screen), he chops off her head with an ice-skate blade. It's okay, though: Her severed head is still able to preach the gospel according to Marx and Reich to the coroner. The nonlinear editing is awesome (in one phallic sequence that must have incensed Makavejev's Communist government, newsreel footage of a sturdy little Stalin is followed by a plaster cast of a porn-rag editor's penis and a guy in a straightjacket slamming his head against a wall), there are some charming interviews with transgender Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis, and a protracted sex scene is accompanied by Slavic circus music. I don't necessarily think WR: Mysteries of the Organism is an appropriate homage to the apparently humorless Reich, but it is a fabulous film.
This week Criterion is also releasing Makavejev's 1974 messy fetish bonanza Sweet Movie, which begins with an intact-hymen beauty contest that seems even timelier in this age of purity balls, as well as If..., an excellent tale of schoolboy mutiny that launched Grand Illusion's series on director Lindsay Anderson last week.