Director/Coscreenwriter: Dušan Makavejev
Susan Anspach, who died on April 2, 2018, wasn’t what you’d call an A-list star. I’m not even sure you could call her a star. She appeared in an assortment of movies and TV programs and movies, with her most recognized work running consecutively over four short years (The Landlord , Five Easy Pieces , Play It Again, Sam , and Blume in Love ). Montenegro, a film that takes on the feminine mystique nearly 20 years after Betty Friedan’s book started raising the consciousness of white, middle-class women in the United States and beyond, offers a decidedly masculine cure for the household drudge.
As primatelike shrieks issue from the soundtrack, the film’s preamble begins with a title card: “A little girl questioned a monkey in a zoo: Why do you live here? Isn’t it nicer where you came from?” Cut to a chimpanzee looking gravely at the camera and then nodding.
The film proper opens with a long shot of Anspach, wrapped in a full-length fur coat, walking to the end of a pier. A close-up of her face gives little away as she stares across a wide expanse of water that sits below her palatial mansion on the hill behind her. Marianne Faithfull’s signature take on “The Tale of Lucy Jordan” underscores this sequence, drawing a line between Anspach’s character, Marilyn Jordan, and her near namesake whose ennui over her dull life and dashed hopes ends with a deadly leap off a roof. Is suicide similarly on Marilyn’s mind?
Marilyn is a pampered housewife living in Sweden with her husband Martin (Erland Josephson), a wealthy Swedish businessman who is rarely home to spend time with her or their two children, Cookie (Marianne Jacobi) and Jimmy (Jamie Marsh). The extent of her husband’s wealth is signaled at a fur fashion show she attends, when an expert says there is nothing she can do about the shedding problem she is having with her $100,000 lynx coat, a fur so costly that it isn’t used by Swedish furriers. In this indirect way, the film signals the irreversible rot at the heart of Marilyn’s life.
Markavejev takes his time introducing us to Marilyn’s world and revealing the thin line of sanity she skirts. Her loneliness and having to care for her invalid father-in-law (John Zacharias), who thinks he is Buffalo Bill and packs a Smith & Wesson revolver, is affecting her behavior. She makes and eats an entire plate of wienerschnitzel meant for her family, sets fire to her blankets after her husband has grudgingly made love to her, and attempts to poison the dog she insisted Martin get for Cookie’s 10th birthday. It’s not long before Martin invites a money-grubbing psychiatrist, Dr. Pazardjian (Per Oscarsson), to the house to evaluate her surreptitiously; Marilyn isn’t fooled.
Marilyn reaches a turning point when she decides that the arrival of a second taxi to take her husband to the airport for an extended trip to Brazil is an omen that she should accompany him. It is at the airport that a miscalculation of her distracted mind sends her down a very different path than the one she thought awaited her. Thus, Markavejev sends Marilyn and viewers on a trip down the road less traveled—the “ride through Paris in a sports car” that Lucy Jordan dreamed of in vain—that takes her into the freewheeling heart of immigrant Roma life.
Marilyn moves off the pedestal of rich, white woman affronted by her temporary detention at airport security slowly. Markavejev signals the change when his camera zooms in on a pair of flamboyant shoes. They belong to Alex Rossignol (Bora Todorović), the owner of the Zanzi Bar, who is at the airport to pick up a mousy stripper and prostitute (Patricia Gélin) fresh from Yugoslavia and sweeps Marilyn up in his wake. Marilyn is appalled by the literal barnyard atmosphere of Zanzi Bar, declaring that she’ll have to burn her clothes after she leaves. It is upon spotting the piercing blue eyes of the man nicknamed Montenegro (Svetozar Cvetković), who sold her Cookie’s dog and who lives and works at the bar, that her engagement with her surroundings starts to click into place.
Markavejev returns to the sexual preoccupations of his previous features, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), offering both first-class and steerage versions of sex without the self-conscious seriousness one finds in most films, then and now. His send-up of this sober sexuality reaches its apex when he has Josephson and Oscarsson, consummate actors closely associated with Ingmar Bergman, dance together in white bathrobes celebrating their newfound “friendship” while Marilyn is on the loose. (Indeed, although he has little screen time, Oscarsson walks off with the film.) Markavejev loosely equates the characters with a variety of animals that appear randomly in close-up throughout the film, favoring a chimp as a stand-in for Martin—and for himself, in the opening credits.
The low-rent sex scenes are reminiscent of opera buffa. Marilyn goes to sleep in the loft of the club only to awaken to Alex and his wife Rita (Lisbeth Zachrisson) having sex next to her on the bed. Far from flipping out, Marilyn smiles and has a short conversation with them until the bed collapses under them. Anspach has been modulating her reaction to her strange surroundings as a kind of relaxation that seems deeper than a brief vacation or mere slumming. When she assumes the mantle of waitress, she seems fully integrated and works efficiently and joyfully during Markavejev’s piece de resistance: the mousy stripper transformed into a nature goddess who does a serpentine dance with a remote-control toy tank sporting a dildo.
It’s hard to know how the film will resolve, but it’s to Markavejev’s credit that he turns Lucy Jordan’s sad tale on its head and reveals Marilyn’s apparent madness for with it is—anger. Montenegro is not an especially accomplished film, peppered as it is with inconsistencies, sloppy edits, and on-the-nose imagery, but it remains lodged in my memory like the knife protruding from the forehead of one of its characters. In fact, it’s the only work I can unhesitatingly recall Anspach appearing in and that I have revisited several times over the years. I hope she had a great time riding in the long white car that took her to forever.