Carice van Houten, left, and Hanna Alstrom in “The Affair.” Vertical Entertainment

An interesting but ultimately frustrating struggle between form and content animates “The Affair,” an attractive but inert drama set in Czechoslovakia amid the most pivotal events of the 20th century.

Hanna Alstrom and Carice van Houten play Liesel and Hana, best friends whose relationship possesses an undeniably erotic undertow, even after they’re both married. In Liesel’s case, the man in question is Viktor Landauer (Claes Bang), a prosperous auto executive who shares his wife’s taste for sleek, modernist lines. They commission a noted German architect to build a low-slung, glass-and-steel house outside the metropolis of Brno. Initially a monument to the optimism and boldness of prewar Europe, the Landauer house goes from being a statement to a family home, as Liesel and Viktor begin to have children; with the advent of World War II and the subsequent Soviet takeover of the country, the fate of the building becomes both an enduring and ruined symbol of the fortunes of the Landauer family.

It also becomes something of a talisman for Hana, for whom the seductive but impenetrable surfaces stand in for her own unspoken desires for Liesel. Directed by Julius Sevcik in a series of epigrammatic, sometimes confounding scenes jumping back and forth in time, “The Affair” has all the slow-burning passion and bodice-heaving melodrama of the Victoriana that the Landauers would probably ridicule. The emotionalism stands in stark contrast to the open, pared-down aesthetic of the setting, which happens to be the real-life Villa Tugendhat that inspired “The Glass Room,” Simon Mawer’s novel from which the film is adapted.

Full of incident, heartbreak, secrets and betrayal, “The Affair” and its choppy formal structure don’t do justice to an enormously appealing cast (Bang seems especially underutilized in a perfunctory role). But the most important character – that house – takes pride of place with understated ease. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, the Villa Tugendhat is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and serves as a stunning backdrop in the film, which traces its real-life morphology from pristine futuristic showplace to signifier for brutality in all its forms. “The Affair” may not obey the clean lines and unforced flow of the architectural gem that inspired it, but it affords viewers to experience its modernist force, at least vicariously.

Claes Bang in “The Affair.” Vertical Entertainment


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