Love Dossier, or the Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator
English Title: Love Dossier, or the Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator
Original Title: Ljubavni slučaj, ili tragedija službenice PTT
Country of Origin: Yugoslavia
Studio: Avala Film
Director: Dušan Makavejev
Producer(s): Aleksandar Krstić
Cinematographer: Aleksandar Petković
Art Director: Vladislav Lašić
Editor: Katarina Stojanović
Runtime: 79 minutes
Genre: Drama/Art Cinema
Volume: East European
In Belgrade, a young telephone operator named Izabela meets a sanitation inspector called Ahmed. Although of different backgrounds (she is an ethnic Hungarian, while he is a Bosniak Muslim) and outlooks on life (Izabela is modern, lively and outgoing, while Ahmed is a stiff Party member), the two meet and fall in love. The relationship between the two unlikely lovers seems to thrive despite the growing tension between Izabela’s mundane social aspirations and Ahmed’s consumption with work. While Ahmed is away on business, however, Izabela engages in a one-night-stand with a colleague from work, and it soon transpires that she is pregnant and unsure of whom the father might be. Stressed and insecure, Izabela becomes increasingly estranged from Ahmed, whose withdrawn personality prevents him from coming to terms with her partner’s sudden emotional swings. Their relationship deteriorates, and the two lovers seem to be sliding towards a tragic end.
Dušan Makavejev’s second feature film Ljubavni slučaj, ili tragedija službenice PTT/Love Dossier opens with two surprising questions: ‘will there be a reform of man?’ and ‘will that new man retain certain old organs?’ The first of them, which could have been taken from any Soviet textbook, sums up the core requirement of Marxist pedagogy: to foster a new, class-conscious individual; whilst the second faithfully encapsulates one of the most recurrent themes of Makavejev’s films (already introduced in his cinematic debut Čovek nije tica/Man is not a Bird ): is it possible for a man to build socialism and retain his human features? Or, in other words, in order for a ‘society of ideas’ to succeed, is it necessary to give up human libidinal functions and urges?
In the opening scene, Makavejev implements a documentary aside and introduces a renowned sexologist who talks about the importance of sexuality and danger of neglect of human sexual instinct. Only in the wake of this scene does the director introduce the central protagonist – the young and pretty switchboard operator Izabela – who is a newcomer to Belgrade. He follows her as she walks the streets of Yugoslavia’s capitol city, and enjoys idle talks with her friend Ruža. One day she is introduced to Ahmed, a sanitary inspector by profession, and himself single and new to Belgrade. Ahmed and Izabela are an unlikely match: like Jan in Man is not a Bird, Ahmed is socially awkward and inept, a Party member and, above all, overly dedicated to his all-but-romantic profession, while the young girl seems vivacious and outgoing.
Contrary to the expectations built by traditional romantic narratives, Makavejev cuts from the moment following the future lovers’ first encounter to a scene detailing the excavation of a young woman’s body from a Roman well, which is followed by a post-mortem examination wherein we realize that the young woman is in fact Izabela. The examination sequence is followed by a quasi-documentary account of the crime of passion, which is given by an academic criminologist. The series of documentary and pseudo-documentary interpolations, along with continuous narrative prolepses that characterise this film (as they will in numerous of the director’s subsequent works) enable Makavejev to subvert the linear narrative, remove suspense and deprive his film of any traditional genre features. Therefore, right from the beginning, Love Affair ceases to be a cinematic enactment of a ‘love story’, or a ‘tragedy’, but grows into a critical examination of the phenomena of love and death. As the main narrative progresses, Izabela and Ahmed fall for each other, and all their differences notwithstanding, love seems to reign supreme. However, Ahmed’s working commitments and his long absence from home alienate Izabela from him and push her into a brief affair with a colleague from work, something which appears to be motivated primarily by sexual rather than emotional fulfilment (thereby reifying the implicit dichotomy found throughout the narrative).
With Love Affair Makavejev furthers his investigations into cinematic narrative and also expands the thematic preoccupations he had already established in his debut feature. Yet the audacity with which Love Affair questions the inability of Yugoslav socialism to negotiate between private and public spheres, as well as the further radicalisation of modernist cinematic devices (discontinuous narration, use of documentary material, montage, non-diegetic sound, etc.), make the director’s sophomore effort the most radical demonstration of cinematic modernism in Yugoslav cinema of the 1960s.
Author of this review: Dušan Radunović