Every couple of years we get an adaptation of a trashy potboiler that blends Dynasty-style romantic melodrama with a tragic historical event that had a devastating impact on the lives of millions. These stories tend to devote more time to adulterous affairs than they do to the finer points of how a genocide is carried out. Often it feels like the Russian Revolution or the Dawn Raids are just used as convenient plot devices to have certain characters killed off. These stories do tend to be exploitative and yet they retain a patina of respectability which ensures that producers like Harvey Weinstein would have fashioned them into awards bait that was appealing to audiences who didn’t want to think too much during their prestige pictures. And such is the case with Martin Štrba’s The Affair.
It feels a lot like The English Patient (1996) in its construction and its love for scenes in which people engage in heavy breathing to communicate all of their emotions. The Holocaust is just sort of there in this story and this is where the frustration comes in. We are meant to care more about the fact that a house belonging to wealthy people is going to be torn down, than we do about the murder of millions of innocent Jews. When the Holocaust does play a major role in the story, it feels largely incidental, and it is mostly there to separate characters who want to be romantically involved. You can hear all of the plot mechanics grinding away and writer-for-the-screen Andrew Shaw fails to conceal all of the contrivances at play when adapting this tall tale (from the novel by Simon Mawer).
Hana (Carice van Houten) has romantic feelings for her friend Liesel (Hanna Alström) but can’t act on them because Hana is happily married to Viktor (Claes Bang). Liesel is the owner of a stately house and treasures this property as her most prized possession. Liesel and Viktor take in Kata (Alexandra Borbély) a Jewish widow who has to take refuge in a safe house because of the rise of anti-Semitism in Czechoslovakia. She brings her children with her, but begins an affair with Viktor that puts strain on his marriage to Liesel. Viktor and Liesel leave the country with Kata’s children in an effort to spare them from being killed in the Holocaust. This separates Liesel from Hana and the latter has to suffer through several years of political upheaval in her country without the support of her friend.
The Affair pretends that it wants to say something about the sacrifices that people had to make during the Holocaust and successive betrayals that Czechoslovakians faced at the hands of two different leadership regimes. It skims over both of these very topical issues and you find yourself wanting this film to admit that it is a piece of exploitation cinema. If it had fully committed to being the Salon Kitty (1976) of its era, it would have at least been honest about its intentions.
Only van Houten seems to understand that she’s working with a preposterous concept and she plays her character like a high-camp ham. She sashays through the living room of the house in feathered homburg hats and puffs away at a cigarette with the intensity and vigour of an elderly Bette Davis. Her sidelong glances and lustful sneers come with a hint of self-aware good humour and it is nice to know that one of the performers is in on the joke. All of the others fully give themselves over the jewellery commercial aesthetic and we are barraged with shots of Bang shedding a single tear as he almost stares right into the camera. We get it, this is meant to be a Malickian tone poem in which anguish is reflected through skirt twirling and contemplative stares, but Terence Malick has the ideas to back up the memorable cinematography in his greatest works.
The costumes, hair, make-up work and the set design would be worthy of praise if they accurately captured the period or left a lasting impact. They cause one to feel as though they are facing a sensory assault and you can only pick up fragments of the shots that Śtrba has composed. Editor Jarosław Kamiński is aiming for a Malickian effect, but he ends up chopping up scenes in a way that does not benefit them and Śtrba’s efforts to set up visual motifs are sabotaged. There are unnecessary flashbacks to the past that come out of nowhere and cheesy shots of snow-covered branches that are supposed to serve as interstitials. You have to assume that the two work in tandem and perhaps it’s unfair to assign too much blame to Kamiński, but the editing does appear to drag this production down. You can’t just sit back and take in the surface-level beauty, you have to suffer through a lot of unfortunate scene transitions in order to appreciate any of the mise-en-scène.
You can’t deny the fact that Martin Štrba has put a hell of a lot of effort into bringing together beautiful imagery for The Affair, but you also feel as though he ends up creating something that is pretty, just for the sake of being pretty. He has a group of attractive actors to work with, typically elegant 1940s formalwear and rain that will meaningfully trickle down window panes. All of this imagery might sound familiar to people who have watched Pandora Christmas commercials. You can’t deny the fact that you often forget that you are watching a melodrama about the breakdown of three families and the horrors of the Holocaust. You are seduced by the beauty of the fashion and the opulent houses that all of the characters inhabit, but also never entirely believe that this is rooted in the 1940s. You end up noting all of the superficial aspects of the production because there is very little there when it comes to substance and complex characterisations. The Affair really shouldn’t have aimed to be the Czech version of The Remains of the Day (1993), as it doesn’t possess any of the necessary weight or urgency.
If you do enjoy this brand of trashy historical drama, The Affair might be for you, as you could certainly do worse than van Houten when it comes to glamorous European leading ladies.
THE AFFAIR will be available On Demand on March 5, 2021.