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PopGap #24: Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967)

PopGap #24: Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967)

Written by dorrk
18 January 2017

The threat posed to man by rats has still not been fully grasped here.

About 15 years ago I began to seek out "weird" movies, even though I rarely enjoyed them as much as they piqued my interest. During that time I saw two movies by the Yugoslavian avant-garde director Dusan Makavejev, Sweet Movie and W.R: Mysteries of the Organism. All I really remember from either of them is a mix of sex and politics with narratives constructed out of the seemingly random editing of oddball imagery. Even though neither of those movies meant much to me, there was a respectably anarchic counterculture spirit to them, and I didn't mind at all when an earlier Makavejev movie, Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) (a.k.a. Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.) was brought to my Potluck Film Festival. Either my tolerance for art films has ballooned over the past decade-and-a-half, or Love Affair... is remarkably linear compared to Makavejev's later movies; I not only felt like it was mostly comprehensible, but an appealing contribution to the wave of sex-and-politics cinema that sprung up all over Europe during the late-1960s.

Like the other Makavejev movies I've seen, there's a playful disregard for traditional narrative structure in Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator. While it does, in its own way, tell the easy-to-follow story of a young telephone operator, Izabela (Eva Ras), who embarks on a doomed fling with an older man, Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudić), it also functions, like most movies produced from within authoritarian regimes, as 120% allegory, full of coded stabs at Yugoslavia's then-Communist government as well as the mostly passive populace. Makavejev seems, with his sometimes obscure and sometimes too-literal symbolism, to be asserting that totalitarian rule is elementally at odds with the most natural of human expressions, sexuality. Even though that fundamental cornerstone of life remains resilient and vital under the most dire circumstances, as social mores relaxed during the late 1960s, the new era of promiscuity embraced by young, carefree women was more of a distraction than a liberation from the invasive reach of the state. Like other filmmakers testing the limits of party censors, Makavejev runs through a gamut of tricks to distract just enough from his scathing message to avoid interference. Love Affair... is intermittently interrupted by experts — a sexologist and criminologist — who interject with lectures on sexual expression in culture and the thorough craftiness of the criminal mind, and diverts with newsreel footage of the Communist revolution and exterminators dealing with infestations of of rats. These segments are the most obviously metaphorical, comparing, I think, the Communist Party to murderers and vermin and directly accusing "egg-breaking" ideologues of violating the primary nature of life itself. However, these quirky asides are also so offbeat and abstractly whimsical that they provide a layer of plausible deniability against official sanctions, at least momentarily (within a few years, however, Makavejev was singled out as an agitator and subsequently fled to Canada to keep working).

While the political activism of Love Affair... is complex and provocative, the more traditional story elements work just as well, if not better. Makavejev displays a perceptive and potent touch for capturing intimate and small moments, such as a woman silently flirting with a man while watching TV (they're, amusingly, watching newsreel footage of Communist mobs destroying churches), making pastries, or blowing bubbles while doing the wash. Much like the Swedish arthouse classic I Am Curious (Yellow), also released in 1967 (tellingly, a year prior to the wave of student revolutions that erupted across the continent), Love Affair... offers a breezy, spirited cinéma vérité depiction of young people exploring their new social freedoms and (dis-)connectedness to backdrops of unrest and activism. Naturally, the differences between the free democratic socialism of Sweden and the deceptively casual Communism of Yugoslavia are apparent in the contrast between the two films' endings, with Love Affair... taking a decidedly gloomier path, in line with Makavejev's view of his country's prospects.

While some of the metaphors in Love Affair... are too on-the-nose (a bubble literally bursts just as the love affair turns sour), others are more challenging to decipher. Is it significant that Ahmed is both an immigrant and a Communist, suggesting that Yugoslavia too easily sacrificed its national character despite its relative indepdence from the Soviet Union? Does Izabella's pregnancy inspire in her a fear that both she and her country face submission to a future with alien interests? Is the movie's iconic image of a black cat lounging on Ras' naked back a simple foreshadowing of doom, or is it a suggestion that troublesome elements may, at times, seem perfectly innocent? In my interpretation, Makavejev's central thesis is that, like the transformation of Izabella's and Ahmed's relationship from flirting to domesticity to suspicion and ruin, countries can just as easily, accidentally and naturally, succumb to self-destruction in the guise of independence. When human and political relationships turn sour, there isn't always a clean and happy escape, especially when the nature of one component — one that is fundamentally destructive — is to eliminate the idea of the other. For such a short movie — 69 minutes — Love Affair... is full of ideas worth pondering and expressed from a point-of-view that is fresh and striking. At the very least, Love Affair... raises a compelling argument that I should take another look at the more wild and difficult Makavejev movies that I shrugged off years ago.

Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Dan Kocher, who can be found on Flickchart under the username Fish_beauty. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #875 (out of 5925 movies; 85%) and 18th out of 143 Avant-garde/Experimental movies. On my chart, Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator ranked at #766 (79%), where it's also my 8th favorite Avant-garde/Experimental movie out of 31.

PopGap #24: Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967)

Trailer for Love Affair; or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967)