Dusan Makavejev, Yugoslavian Director of 'Montenegro,' Dies at 86

Dusan Makavejev-Photofest-H 2019

His films, like 'WR: Mysteries of the Organism,' were known for nudity and explicit sex and frequently banned by authorities.

Dusan Makavejev, the Yugoslavian writer, director and vanguard of creative cinema known for his offbeat vision and erotic work in the 1960s and '70s, has died. He was 86.

Makavejev died Friday in Belgrade, Serbia, Marija Radonjilc, the head of his alma mater The University of the Arts, told The Hollywood Reporter. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the school last year.  

Montenegro (1981), which he filmed in Sweden, was perhaps his most widely known film. The black comedy centered on a bored American housewife (Susan Anspach) in Stockholm who has an adventure with a group of Yugoslavian gypsies and makes wild love with one of them.

His films, known for scenes of nudity and explicit sex, often centered on the sexual liberation of a female character. "You discover that there is nothing as funny, as crazy, as dangerous, as exciting and as problematic as sex," he once said.

Makavejev's work — part of a "Black Wave" of filmmaking in his country — also was raucously subversive, anti-bureaucratic and frequently banned by authorities. He audaciously attacked dogmas, whether they came from the East or the West.

Not surprisingly, he was treated as royalty at film festivals.

His 1971 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism caused such a sensation at Cannes that seven additional Directors' Fortnight screenings were scheduled. Centered on the teachings of therapist Wilhelm Reich and his theories of revolution that developed from sexual liberation, it indicted socialist totalitarianism and the puritanical sexual mindset of the West.  

Makavejev was driven from his homeland in the early 1970s. "The best way to describe what happened is I was gently elbowed out of Yugoslavia," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1981. 

As a result, he turned to France and Canada to find financial support for Sweet Movie (1974). The film's violence and animal sexuality frightened exhibitors.

Makavejev was born in Belgrade on Oct. 13, 1932. He received a degree in social psychology from Belgrade University and served in the military. From 1957-64, he split his activities between film criticism and filmmaking. 

Makavejev ran afoul of censors in 1958 with two short films, the erotic Don't Believe in Monuments and Damned Holiday. The latter was admired by Scottish filmmaker John Grierson, who paved the way for its screening on Scottish television, and Makavejev's reputation spread throughout Europe.

However, he was anathema to authorities at home. His play for the Student's Theatre in Belgrade, The New Men of Flower Market, was forcibly withdrawn in 1962 and, during the same year, another short film, Parade, was banned as "disrespectful." It was a madcap blend of music, photographs and quotes, all satirizing the bombastic pomp of the Soviet military machine.

Makavejev's first feature was Man Is Not a Bird (1965), about life in the copper mines of Yugoslavia. His second, Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), marked the first time a native film outplayed one from the U.S. at the box office.

His documentary Innocence Unprotected (1968) won awards at festivals in Berlin and Chicago and got Makavejev a Ford Foundation grant to study communications in the U.S.

Following the furor over WR, Makavejev moved to Paris, where he essentially lived in self-imposed exile. When he could not find work after three years, Louis Malle helped him get Sweet Movie off the ground.

Featuring vomiting and defecation as part of group therapy sessions, Sweet Movie was shot in Montreal, Paris and Amsterdam and presented at Cannes in 1974. British film critic Raymond Durgnat described it as one of the "movies that most brightly speaks the symbolic language that had been on the tips of avant-garde tongues ever since Eisenstein's October." It was a great success in Paris, Italy and Israel. 

Makavejev taught film at Harvard in 1978. While there, Swedish producer Bo Johnson visited him and suggested a light, broad-appeal comedy with a title like Casablanca. He blithely suggested Montenegro.

Later, he directed The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), which starred Eric Roberts and Greta Scacchi in a comedy about an uptight Coke executive who is pursued by a beautiful, flaky Australian employee.