Review by Sarah Williams
In The Affair, originally titled "The Glass Room" (a title change that's truly baffling given how much less unique the former sounds), Carice Van Houten is a gem in what is an otherwise messy and distant lesbian love story. Liesel (Hanna Alström) is content in her marriage to Viktor (Claes Bang), when her dynamic with close, free-spirited friend Hana (Van Houten) shifts. Liesel turns away as Hana confesses her love, turning away while things are still easy. Over the years, Hana tries her best to push away male interest as she waits for Liesel to be ready to love her back. What follows is a lengthy saga across Europe, of two women who may be the right person for each other, but don’t meet at the right time, and an eclectic combination of talented actors, some working on autopilot here, it’s surprising all speak the same language.
The architectural setting at the root of the story most easily draws comparisons to Reaching for the Moon, a Brazilian adaptation of poet Elizabeth Bishop's relationship with architect Lota de Macedo Soares, which painted a passionate, conflicted romance and utilized the house alongside their relationship. Though the modernist house in The Affair, by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, may be better known, the structure feels like merely a setting even though it's so tied to Liesel's past. They anticipate the significance, but the many, many scenes shot within never quite let the room breathe as the character it's supposed to be.
The film has got an odd bend to how it pursues its leads' everlasting desire to be together no matter what, as it's incredibly pushy even when the chemistry dries. Instead of making the love between Liesel and Hana more present, there's an emphasis on leaving, and specifically a focus on their husbands in that regard. We see Czechoslovakia fall to the Nazis, and we see a push to leave behind this glass room, and the past significance it has to their families. The very Aryan Liesel pushes to leave firmly, and it's so in contest with her husband it makes an awkward message considering his firmly noted Judaism in an era of violent antisemitism.
Even though the chemistry lacks at times, the end result of their relationship is sweet, and feels like a worthy payoff to the very slow road there. Claes Bang is surprisingly the highlight out of the actors, charismatic enough that Viktor is more than just the omnipresent, foreboding husband character that is usually present. Visually, the whole deal is a lovely pastel watercolor, with soft lighting and colorful costuming in contest with some of the darker settings.
It's quite clear that this was a novel before it was a film, and perhaps a lot of these weaknesses lie in being an adaptation. Of course, there's not all faults, as it's got a genuine, happy ending that's more than deserved, which breaks a lot of tragedy porn trends within lesbian film. However, some of the flaws don't lie in the source material, with uneven pacing that drags heavily for two acts, and some choppy and distracting editing that takes away a more lucid flow detracting from the romance. It's a solidly middle lane romance, one with a happy ending and talented actresses working on autopilot, that will have a few cult followers, but mostly viewers giving it a decent shrug and moving on.
The Affair is now available on VOD.