Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator

A love affair, a murder, rats, sex education, pervasive phallus imagery, glimpses of the struggle of communist Yugoslavia, performance dance art, an autopsy… it’s all in a day’s work for Dusan Makavejev, who is a rather unknown name in the context of 60’s experimental cinema. For those new to Makavejev, his debut film, Man is Not a Bird, is probably a better introduction. Then again, not having seen any of his later films, Love Affair may be more indicative. But even Man is Not… wasn’t all that traditional, with its warped layers of social propaganda mixed with satire mixed with a more traditional story about a man trying to save a factory.

If you remove the art-film tendencies of Love Affair, you’re left with a film about Izabela (Eva Ras), a switchboard operator who falls in love with Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic), a sanitary inspector who has recently encountered a major rat problem. The two begin a love affair, and Ahmed is even nice enough to buy Izabela a bathtub and have it installed in her place. But when Ahmed has to go away on business, Izabela finds herself alone and lonely, and when the postman at work starts hitting on her, Izabela finds herself tempted towards infidelity. Ahmed returns home to find Izabela really changed, and their relationship troubles begin almost immediately.

If the film were simply viewed on this level, it would be safe and traditional enough. But Izabela and Ahmed’s relationship only tell a small part of the story. The film opens, afterall, with a sexologist in his office telling us about the history of sex and its proliferation even in art. The credits themselves roll over screens of different sexual drawings. But this is hardly the only narrative interruption in the film; later on, a man picks up a hen’s eggs and tells us how it isn’t just good for making omelets, but is, in fact, the most important organ in the female reproductive system. The narrative is also intercut with images of sanitary workers cleaning up rats, and a dead female corpse being prepared for an autopsy.

So, what’s going on here? For those familiar with Makavejev’s work and the tumultuous political history of Yugoslavia, it would be easy to jump to a socio-historical reading of the film, and the film certainly supports it. Apart from the previously named interruptions, the film is also rife with images of the rise of Yugoslavian communism and the socialist republic, as well as national songs (ostensibly) celebrating the country. Both Isabela and Ahmed represent the diversity of the Yugoslavian public, with Izabela originally being Hungarian and Ahmed being a Muslim. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Izabela sings a famous Hungarian song in the original language which Ahmed can’t understand.

But how does the motifs of rats and sexuality fit into all of this? Perhaps a prescient look ahead to Makavejev’s Mysteries of the Organism, which was banned for its mixing of sexual politics, where Makavejev presented the working class’ struggle for liberation against the oppressive communist government. But such a direct metaphor is absent here; instead, Makavejev’s various intercuts hang together much more loosely. Ahmed certainly isn’t a stand-in for an oppressive government, and Izabela is portrayed more as a near-sighted slut than any working class hero struggling to be free.

It’s typically a critics’ responsibility to lend insight into films, but occasionally even we find ourselves incapable of unraveling the mystery of what a filmmaker was trying to suggest. So maybe this all my roundabout way of saying that Makavejev’s point with the film escapes me. On a technical level, I can appreciate it for its daring and originality. But it’s a good example of a film that may have engaged me intellectually, but failed to engage me emotionally or even aesthetically. While some of the cutaways are quite interesting, especially the revolving living “statues” of Adam and Eve, most are just annoying.

The film is quite explicit (certainly for the late ‘60s) in its portrayal of sex and nudity. Eva Ras is nude throughout much of the film, mostly in the context of her bedroom with Ahmed. In what’s likely become the most famous image from the film, Izabela is laying on her bed while her cat climbs on top of her and lays down near her butt. It’s a cute image, but like so many other elements in the film it seems ot only exist, rather than mean anything. With all that said, maybe someone out there can clue me into what the hell Makavejev was going for.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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