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Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Dušan Makavejev, 1967)
The formal inventiveness and freedom of much of 1960s cinema is so striking, and has been so influential, that it can be easy to forget about the bold experiments with storytelling that also boomed during that period. On top of being a pioneering film shot on the streets of Paris when few other filmmakers dared step out of the studio, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is also an astonishing piece of storytelling, to cite just one example. Following a lonely boy at odds with the world around him, the film’s perspective brings us almost unbearably close to its subject, transcribing every jolt of fear, burst of joy or fit of boredom that strikes him; every emotion coursing through his sensitive being. The famous closing freeze frame on Antoine Doinel looking into the camera isn’t just an impactful image, and a powerful way for Truffaut to implicate a then-contemporary audience — to make them face the fact that this sad story is their reality. It is also a powerful reconfiguration of the points of view at play and the positions of viewer, subject, and storyteller.
Though we do not live in the Paris of Antoine’s childhood — we do not experience the sensation of brutal immediacy and closeness that many Parisian viewers must have felt then, recognising their surroundings on the screen — when he suddenly looks at us, we are placed on his own plane of existence. Like us, he is watching; like him, we are being seen. His look into the camera undermines the usual feeling of supremacy that a viewer often feels when watching a character struggle (a feeling that some films are entirely predicated on). Doinel’s look tells us that he knows just as well as we do — even better than we do — how desperate and miserable his situation is.
In his second feature film, titled Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, Yugoslav filmmaker Dušan Makavejev also uses the fourth-wall break to play at the border between character and viewer. But this is only one of the ways in which he seeks to trouble, again and again, the conventional ways in which the two relate.
On one level, the film tells the story of an ethnic Hungarian young woman called Izabela and living in Belgrade, who abandons her habits for casual sex and girly gossip in favour of an extremely conventional life as the housewife to a perfectly nice man called Ahmed, a Muslim sanitation inspector a little older than her. Even those not familiar with Makavejev’s work can guess that this part is a critique of heteronormativity and the restrictive roles given to men and especially women in these relationships — the film is, after all, from the 1960s. But when Izabela looks into the camera, what we see isn’t exactly a cry for help. When she spends hours cooking something for her husband, or happily doing the laundry while he is at work, she isn’t a caricature of the good housewife. Rather she seems playful, as though she was simply enjoying the novelty of this role, reproducing behaviours she may have first seen from her own mother (I myself was struck by the short scene in which she is making pita, a filled pastry that requires spreading a very thing dough across a large table like paper — watching my mother preparing this dish on Sundays was a key part of my childhood). When Izabela looks at us behind the screen, we see not a stereotype, or a pawn in a satirical story, but a human being, someone in love who is experimenting freely with all the roles she could play. Although there are elements of exaggeration — the couple move from Ahmed’s very creepy rooftop flat to a ridiculously large house — the charming snapshots of Izabela and Ahmed’s daily life tell the very sweet story of a young couple in the early days of their life together.
This sweetness is both emphasised and put into question by the other narrative that unfolds in parallel to the love story, the two of them intercut and intertwined. This strand follows the investigation into the murder of a young woman found dead in a well, and consists mostly of straightforward sequences showing experts coldly discuss various adjacent topics (from the autopsy of the victim, to theories about sexuality and the behaviour of rats). In many of those scenes, the naked body of the young woman is lying on a cold slate nearby, or crime photos of her corpse appear on the screen. The brutal contrast in approach and tone between the two narrative strands is less interesting than the fact that we know, practically from the start of the film, that they are related: the murdered young woman is Izabela, and the love story shows us the events that led to her death.
Why does Makavejev tell us this? And what does this knowledge, and the juxtaposition of the two narrative strands, make us feel or understand? One effect is of course heartbreak, as the scenes of Izabela’s happy life are inevitably tainted with the knowledge that she will die, and that despite what appearances suggest, she might already be in danger. But Makavejev’s incredibly bold gesture is also astonishing in itself — it makes us lean a little closer, even while the sadness of our knowledge wants us to look away. The experience is totally disarming, leaving us with precious little safe ground to stand on.
But Izabela looks at us, and though it is painful, it is her humanity we ultimately hold on to, before and after her death. For her, we want to get to the end of the story — or rather to the end of one, and the beginning of the other.
Izabela, it turns out, is a victim of heteronormativity and the fact that it does not allow, in Makavejev’s view, for the true satisfaction of sexual desires. It was cruel, and simply illogical, to ask this young woman to abandon the casual relationship to sex she enjoyed before meeting Ahmed. But it isn’t that all men are pigs and only women suffer: as shown by Makavejev, this is a situation that makes both men and women miserable, their relationships almost inevitably destined to disaster. At the origin of the gender norms that create the circumstances which lead to women’s suffering and death, is a fundamentally flawed vision of sexual desire as it pertains to all genders.
The problem was right in front of our faces all along: the first expert to appear in Love Affair is a certain Dr Aleksandar Kostić, who delivers a short history of how sex and sexual organs used to be not only talked about, but celebrated, in certain ancient cultures. But the emotionally ravaging power of the silence that has replaced this openness seems little understood by most of the other experts appearing in the film. By opening the film with Kostić’s exposé, it seems as though Makavejev is explicitly giving himself the challenge of truly making us understand. In the end, it is his play with perspectives — implicating us in the story of this young murdered woman while keeping us at a remove from it, stretching us across two parallel but tonally opposite narrative strands — that makes us feel on a visceral level, and comprehend better than any scientific speech, the painful contradictions of so-called modern life.