Dusan Makavejev, a Serbian director whose movies, full of politics, sex and metaphor, were hailed on the film festival circuit in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s but also sometimes reviled, died on Jan. 25 in Belgrade, Serbia. He was 86.
Marija Nikolic Radonjic, head of the rector’s office at the University of Arts in Belgrade, where Mr. Makavejev studied directing, confirmed the death.
Mr. Makavejev was, as The Nation once put it, “the brightest star in the avant-garde firmament” in the early 1970s, thanks to movies like “Man Is Not a Bird” (1965), “Innocence Unprotected” (1968) and especially “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” a brash hodgepodge that was a darling of the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.
That movie, incorporating Mr. Makavejev’s signature mashing together of documentary footage and fictional elements, invoked the ideas of the psychologist Wilhelm Reich (the “WR” of the title) to examine fascism, capitalism, sexual liberation and more. Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, captured Mr. Makavejev’s sense of politics and the absurd when he described a central scene in which a Belgrade beautician and Reich admirer thaws an uptight Stalinist by giving him the perfect orgasm.
“The man is so frightened by his extraordinarily satisfying liberation that he decapitates the lady,” Mr. Canby wrote. “Even this doesn’t stop her, however. When we last see her head, sitting on a tray in the morgue, she is still rattling on about the need for social, political and sexual revolution.”
The movie was banned in Mr. Makavejev’s home country and not shown there until 15 years later. He left the country in the aftermath, living abroad for years, and shot his next feature, “Sweet Movie,” in Canada and Western Europe.
It was not received quite as well at Cannes when it played there in 1974. Mr. Canby, writing about the festival that year, called it “the film that most people want to see, so they can say how terrible it is.” Again mashing up themes of sex, politics and liberation, Mr. Makavejev loaded the movie with scatological and other over-the-top scenes that drew boos. (He cut several minutes’ worth of particularly offensive material when the movie was shown the next year in New York.)
Mr. Makavejev went silent for several years, then returned with “Montenegro” (1981), which starred Susan Anspach as an unfulfilled housewife who takes a walk on the wild side when she joins up with some Yugoslav immigrants in Stockholm. The film fared better with critics than “Sweet Movie” had, although it also made news for its on-set clashes, including between the star and the director.
“At one point, he wanted me to operate this electric dildo, which is something I definitely did not feel comfortable doing and said so,’ ” Ms. Anspach (who died last year) told The Globe and Mail of Canada in 1987 in an interview in which she imitated Mr. Makavejev’s accented English. “ ‘Don’t you realize?’ he yelled, ‘dees ees meant to be a symbol of da capitalist vorld giving eet to da tird vorld?’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, terrific, Dusan, but put it in the subtitles.’ ”
Dusan Makavejev (DOO-shun mack-ah-VEY-ev) was born on Oct. 13, 1932, in Belgrade, then part of Yugoslavia. He earned a psychology degree at the University of Belgrade but shifted his interests to filmmaking, receiving a degree in directing at the University of the Arts and then spending several years making documentaries and shorts.
His first feature, “Man Is Not a Bird,” was about an engineer and a miner and their respective romantic lives; the critic Jay Carr wrote that it “deserves a place on any short list of great debut features.” Mr. Makavejev’s subsequent movies grew more daring in their flouting of authority and more experimental in structure, forgoing straightforward storytelling and consistency of tone.
“I like free cutting between image and sound,” he told The Boston Globe in 1976, “jumps from sentimentality to pathos, jumps from cliché to intimate details. The style must be free to pulsate through the whole piece, according to the general flow.”
Mr. Makavejev’s movies often centered on female characters and their efforts to break free of society’s rules and expectations.
“Women are much richer in their problems, unexplored areas and feelings,” he explained in an interview with The Times in 1981. “Men are so ugly in their prescribed roles, stuck into all kinds of clichés.”
During his break from filmmaking after “Sweet Movie,” Mr. Makavejev taught in Paris and at Harvard. His post-“Montenegro” films included “The Coca-Cola Kid” (1985) and “Manifesto” (1988).
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Makavejev’s directing career was winding down by the early 1990s, but he remained full of ideas. In 1991, his “WR” was being re-edited, with his permission, so that it could be shown on British television as part of a series on censored films.
In an interview with The Independent of London at that time, he mused about a making a follow-up to the movie — “a sequel,” he said, “in which Milena, the main character, decapitated at the end of the first film by her lover, has her head sewn back on by surgeons and has triplets who go to Gorbachev’s Russia to visit the land of their father.”