Dusan Makavejev’s second feature film sees him continuing to tackle many of the same themes and ideas as in his first, Covek Nije Tica [Man is Not a Bird], whilst also refining the stylistic anarchy he had developed simultaneously. Via detours throughout Ljubavni Slucaj to the lectures of a sexologist, the cold scientific process of an autopsy, and a quick quasi-documentary on rat extermination, Makavejev regales us with the story of two lovers in Belgrade, Izabela (Eva Ras) and Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic).
The two form a wholly unlikely partnership. She is a telephone operator, young and beautiful and full of vibrancy and life. He is a rat exterminator, quite boring and stuffy, a bit of a Communist Party apparatchik, and also one who claims that he doesn’t drink much, preferring instead just ‘one or two binges a year’. In addition, she is a Hungarian Catholic, and he a Serbian-Bosnian Muslim. Whilst it may shock the average Westerner to know that yes, we have secularised Muslims in Serbia (and they wear normal clothes! How ’bout that eh?), the film makes very little of this fact because Communist Yugoslavia at the time was of course the greatest of all nations the world over, the most magnificent and glorious temple to the wonders of socialism and the achievements of humanity’s greatest dignitary Josip Broz Tito. We see, as with so many other romance films, the relationship blossom and fall apart tragically, but Makavejev employs a variety of stylistic experiments whilst investigating a number of thematic ideas of his to keep Ljubavni Slucaj from becoming ‘just another romance film’ that we’ve all seen before.
Makavejev is, as ever, obsessed with sex. The chemistry between the two leads is superb, and Makavejev films them lovingly, particularly during the blossoming of the relationship. At one point we find them the morning after they spend their first night together. The gorgeous Belgrade sun dapples into the room, bathing the two lovers in light, and their bodies are wrapped together in a way that only couples can manage.
One of Makavejev’s favourite tricks is to juxtapose not just two separate images, but two separate stories or scenes to create a third one that is entirely implied. As such, these scenes of graciousness and lightness are juxtaposed with the scenes of a woman’s body being dragged out of a well and the scientific, by-the-numbers methodology of the following autopsy – we can see the woman is our Izabela. By contrasting these two separate scenes a third one is created in our minds: we want to see how Izabela got from point A to point dead.
This contrasting and matching of images is repeated throughout Ljubavni Slucaj. Elsewhere a shot of Izabela’s bare buttocks is match-edited with two eggs, which are then cracked and used to make pastry, all shot in extreme close-up. This is followed by another lecture from our resident sexologist, explaining to us that the female egg is the most highly developed cell. He really is a recurring highlight of the film, one of those inherently funny old Balkan men, whose every movement and gesture seems designed to generate laughs. His speeches throughout the film are incredibly entertaining, but also mostly complete and utter rubbish. Taken together, his monologues create a story about the history of sex in society, but one which is based in complete falsity in comparison to the naturalistic romance we see between Izabela and Ahmed. Yet, his very presence in the film is Makavejev’s way of making us question whether the couple’s romance is as naturalistic as we want it to be, or as we seem to think it is. Is this really a romance of the fairy-tale variety that so much of society invites us to dream about, or is it simply a coming together of genitalia for carnal pleasure?
Throughout, Ljubavni Slucaj investigates how sex and society influence and constrain our actions. We see how both Izabela and Ahmed respond and react to various societal pressures when it comes to their relationship. With Makavejev’s interspersion of documentary or quasi-documentary footage, he reinforces the notion that so much of our lives are inherently constructed within the limitations of liberty that any particular society provides us with. This is a director utterly fascinated by the medium of film, endlessly curious about its ability to represent reality and blur lines between fact and fiction and to construct new realities in its wake. After all, how many of us had the images of an on-screen kiss in the back of our minds when we had our first kiss?
As an investigation of such ideas, Ljubavni Slucaj works. As a film as a whole it is not as successful as its predecessor Covek Nije Tica. Whilst the free-associative interjections Makavejev slips into Ljubavni Slucaj do feel more coherent in regards to their connection to the rest of the film, the film as a whole lacks the craziness and exuberance of the earlier film. The early scenes of Izabela and Ahmed falling in love represent the film’s main fount of energy, but as their relationship deteriorates, so does the pacing of the film. The last 20 or so minutes feel completely uninteresting – we already know what is about to happen as this has been revealed to us in the autopsy earlier on in the film, and Makavejev in this case fails to make the ‘how’ of what happens particularly interesting. By this point he has expunged most of his free-associative juxtapositions and detours, leading to a relatively by-the-numbers conclusion, and we are left with a relatively uninteresting finale to an otherwise incredibly fascinating film.