For a film that only runs a few minutes past an hour in length, Dusan Makavejev's Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator sure does offer an abundance of material ripe for analysis, and multiple angles of approach to choose from. I could provide some background context about Makavejev's place in Yugoslavian/Serbian cinematic history, or do a little more research to learn more about the cultural situation from which this film emerged and the dramatic impact that it had on its society at the time. Or maybe I should choose to focus on how this oddly radical, sexually forthright little exercise in obscurity was initially received when the film made its way to Western audiences in the late 1960s. There's also a more rarefied plane of philosophical and political discourse that has developed around the movie. The links I've embedded in each of those sentences offers up a solid example of the various interpretations, and I'm sure that each of them will inform my comments in months to come when I take the time to discuss Eclipse Series 18: Dusan Makavejev Free Radical on my Eclipse Viewer podcast. But I'm content for now to just revel in the simple joys of this fascinatingly whimsical, free-spirited, farcical, morbid and tragic portrait of young people caught in the clashing cross-currents of erotic desire, patriotic duty and economic survival.
Makavejev has a story to tell - about Izabela, a Hungarian woman (the switchboard operator referred to in the title) living in Yugoslavia, and her boyfriend Ahmed, a Muslim of Turkish descent who has nonetheless bought wholesale into the Communist Party ethos imposed by the country's ruler, General Tito. Ahmed is poor, making his living as a rat exterminator, living in a dismal rented room on the roof of a shabby building. Izabela isn't all that much better off herself, and even though she doesn't share Ahmed's zeal for conforming to socialist ideals, she's still quite fond of him, and we're treated to several scenes of them enjoying moments of low-budget romantic intimacy and playfully erotic domestic pleasure.
Business calls Ahmed away for several weeks, and in the meantime, Izabela finds herself diligently pursued by a horny mailman whose smarmy insistence on getting with her finally wears down her resistance. It's not an encounter that goes so well for her (you see Izabela's slightly stunned response at the moment of yielding on the front cover of the disc), but neither is it especially terrible. Just enough to disrupt her infatuation with Ahmed, which he detects upon his return, sending him into a despondent fit that leads to a tragic outcome.
That summary is basically me doing a favor to viewers new to the director, or to this style of unorthodox cinema in general, who might have a hard time piecing the underlying narrative together, because Makavejev jumbles it all into a mix that feels almost random at times (even though it's really not), with all sorts of interpolations from Yugoslavia's past and present. There are clips from old documentaries showing churches being plundered in a wave of secularization that swept across the country when the Communists assumed power, a clinical depiction of human autopsy, a short historical account of rat infestations in Eastern Europe, medieval era illustrations of phallic idols, what looks like found footage from the silent film era of a naked man and woman in artistic poses captured in 360° tracking shots, and "expert testimony" from authorities on criminal and sexual behavior that are simultaneously amusing, because of their jarring editorial placement and sardonic content, and illuminating, as Makavejev brilliantly uses the chaotic mash-up technique to shed light on the serious ideas he's dealing with in such a witty and provocative manner.
The soundtrack music also deserves special mention, as he skillfully draws attention to the pomposity and false grandeur of Marxist (and more broadly, 20th-century nationalistic) propaganda by juxtaposing patriotic anthems and rousing orchestral scores with imagery of a much more mundane and uninspiring grittiness.
As was the case with my previous review of Nagisa Oshima's Japanese Summer: Double Suicide, this is my second go-round with Makavajev's Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator. (Long titles laden with non-sequiturs being such a 1967 kind of thing...) I reviewed this film back on Valentine's Day in 2011, expecting something a bit more romantic (based on the title) than what was delivered, though as I mentioned already, there are definitely some sweet and tender moments to be enjoyed along the way. But we're also quickly informed that something deeply sad and troubling has already occurred, which casts a pall of gloom and seriousness even over the more entertaining outbursts of ribaldry and anarchy that Makavejev soon took to even more extreme heights, and which have largely secured his notoriety to this day.
Next: Thirst for Love