Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (1967, Yugoslavia, Dusan Makavejev)

Until the emergence of Emir Kusturica in the 1980s, the sole Yugoslavian director of any international reputation was Dusan Makavejev, best known for his 1971 film 'W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism', which was included on Derek Malcolm's Century of Film list. I've yet to see this, but understand it's typical of Makavejev's style, combining satire with sexual anarchy, as well as references to sexuality from an academic perspective, with its title based on Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. 'The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator' similarly uses the study of sexuality as its foundations, with an opening lecture from an academic, who believes that sexuality is "more whispered than spoken about". Makavejev then uses images of sexuality throughout the ages over the lecture, with plenty of pornography from yesteryear.

Using editing between the past and present, Makavejev documents the ill-fated relationship between Izabela (Eva Ras), a switchboard operator and Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic), a sanitary inspector. Intriguingly, both Izabela and Ahmed are of minority descent; she's Hungarian, and he's Bosnian. What this shows is the ethnic and racial melting pot that Yugoslavia was, and this diversity and its historical conflict was only contained through totalitarianism. As soon as Communist fell, these historical conflicts spectacularly exploded. Perhaps their unstable union reflects the unstable union of the entire nation. Under the influence of early Godard, this relationship is shown in a breezy and whimsical fashion initially, with their trivial conversations in bed reflecting those of 'Breathless'. Contrasting these scenes are clips of Communist propaganda, which might initially seem non sequiturs, but perhaps make sense upon consideration. In a highly politicised society, Makavejev's films reject politics entirely. By showing the domestic and not the political world, he's perhaps more subversive than he would be by making a film that directly responds to the current political landscape. Sex is the best reaction to politics.

The relationship turns tragic when Izabela has a one night stand with the switchboard centre's resident skirt-chaser, Mica (Miodrag Andric) who she'd previously rejected numerous times after becoming dissatisfied with Ahmed's seriousness ("Damn this for a life!" she exclaims at one moment) and the overbearing domesticity in their relationship. The scene in an early part of the film when a body is found in a well, and a criminologist lectures us about the act and psychology of murder, now makes sense to us. Though in a moment of tremendous irony, the whole incident turns out to be an unfortunate accident. And that's probably how we should consider this film; as a blackly comic and ironic film. The use of sexuality is indeed subversive. Both this and 'WR...' were offered to sex theatres by the director as a means of getting distribution abroad. However, I should add that I wasn't overly enamoured by this film. Some of the documentary footage used didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the film, e.g. the footage regarding the rat problem in Belgrade, unless its meaning goes over my head, but makes for a fairly disjointed film overall. It's clearly the work of a fertile imagination, but I'm not sure that creativity makes a coherent product. 3/5

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