Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) - Directed by Dusan Makavejev

Dusan Makavejev’s cinema, born out of Serbia in Yugoslavia during the 1960’s, is one in which art, social conformity, and even cinema itself comes into question. Coming out of a communist nation, it’s hard to believe these films ever got made, let alone saw the light of day. His insistence on eliminating traditional form and his use of collage and experimentation are all central to the “Black Wave” movement taking place in Yugoslavia in the 1960’s, of which he might be the director with the largest legacy. His most fruitful and accomplished period occurred with his first films, including a fascinating one called Innocence Unprotected (1968), but it's Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator that is a superior example of contradiction and provocation.

In Love Affair, or…., Makavejev tells a loosely interpreted story about Izabela (Eva Ras), a switchboard operator, and Ahmed (Slobodon Aligrudic), a vermin exterminator, and their short but tragically passionate relationship. Many of the scenes involving their interaction borrow heavily from the French New Wave and much of the cinema verite going on around the world at the time. What makes this film, and Makavejev’s cinema unique, is his reluctance to stick with one style. He interjects his “story” with documentary-like footage: a discussion and lecture to the audience on sexuality from a sexologist, including historical depictions and artwork on sex, a lecture on criminology and the mindstate of criminals from a criminologist.

This all ends up being tied together through the plot, when we realize that the relationship involves both sex and a murder, and in fact, birth and death. Several times we are introduced to life-giving or life-affirming images: shots of eggs, bubbles, bread dough, the female form, the description of a fetus in utero. These are contrasted with ghastly images of death: blood, corpses, dead rats, an autopsy. When you combine the contradiction of the beautiful with the blood curdling, there is a chilling effect on the viewer.  We’re also shown copious shots of civilian protests as well as some arresting footage of the removal of the church from communist society. Despite the shortness of the film, Love Affair, or… is literally loaded with ideas and images over its 69 minutes that leave an impression and are directly confrontational. It seems like Makavejev provokes the viewer with impressions of stifling socialist viewpoints and personal freedom, lecture versus action, social norms versus personal choices.

What I appreciate so much about the film is how the collage actually works. Much like the cinema of Terrence Malick, Makavejev is reliant on the collage of images and impressions, many contradictory in this case, leading to an overall tone and mood, which ends up creating a sense of purpose. I’m not pretending to know all of what Makavejev was trying to say about cinema, nor Yugoslavian history or politics. I think there’s more here than I mentioned. But, the film works on many levels and is memorable for both how it presents its story and in many cases, how it does not tell the story. Makavejev would go on to make increasingly brazen films in the 1970's, but seemed to have maintained a certain critical balance here. This is an original film from a director with a very unique viewpoint. It strikes me as an underrated and important film from this time period.

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