roy andersson - master of absurdity

Categories of Swedish directors: the first one shows entertainment, the second focuses on modern social problems, the third is a master of examination the human soul (You All Know Who). Here we stumble upon the fourth one. He has a particular taste for absurdity. Very distinctive in style and presented narratives. Roy Andersson gains extreme opinions as he bounces between two opposite poles.

Roy Andersson in 2008

Roy Andersson in 2008

Roy Andersson was born in Göteborg in 1943. His first full-length movie „A Swedish Love Story” from 1970 brought him prizes at the film festival in Berlin and international recognition. For next three decades he focused on smaller projects and commercials. In 2000 he released „Songs from the second floor”. It is the opening for something called „Living trilogy” (although this name for me is unrelated). Two other parts of the series Andersson presented to the public every seven years: in 2007 it was „You, the Living” and in 2014 „A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (for mine and your sake I'll just shorten it to „Pigeon”). And finally I decided to watch those three movies. After this... performance I had to spend some time with movies on the level of „The School of Rock”, but it was worth it. It's just Roy uses this level of absurdity, which doesn't have to bring any reflection on life, that in the end a viewer wants just simple entertainment. Couple of my thoughts, starting with the production I enjoyed the most.

A frame from "You, the Living"

A frame from "You, the Living"

 YOU, THE LIVING ONE OR SURPRISING WITH NORMALITY

Andersson is not using a typical plot. He presents couple of stories, which may or may not relate to one another. They don't have to comment on each other, comment on life, say anything at all. If there are connections between the scenes or the characters, they are not important. A particular scene can be a pearl by itself. All are shot from one angle, with no cut. All the colours are typically Swedish – monochrome, faded pastels, beige, brown and grey, no intensity (thanks to this measure whenever the director uses a vibrant colour it catches the eye immediately). All the sceneries are very Swedish as well – the interiors are very simple, with almost no decorations, showing only useful items. Andersson shows mainly the inside of the flats, but whenever he goes on the streets, he follows this pattern – modernistic architecture with clean cuts of the brick, faded shades of the colours. He uses all the most Swedish surroundings that he can find. But is he showing Swedish society?

A frame from "You, the Living"

A frame from "You, the Living"

There are samples of life, which are undoubtedly Swedish, there are processes, which can be found in several societies. For the former I might mention a scene with drinking songs. I know, it's basically a human quality to sing and drink, but Swedes have some unique lyrics and games, known across all counties and generations. For the latter there is of course Nazism, hidden in the movie and in Swedish society as well and this may apply to other countries. Sweden is such an interesting case for that – as a country neutral during the second world war, brining humanitarian help, on the other hand having many supporters of this ideology.

Andersson is showing different aspects of life – conflict in the marriage, children taking advantage of their parents, lost love, loneliness, Nazism. Those might be universal issues, affecting all humans, taken up by numerous artists so far. In „You, the Living” Andersson is playing smoothly with all measures possible. It's hard to judge the movie as a whole, I enjoyed particular scenes. Maybe they are pure absurd, mumbling, overdrawn. Maybe there is a meaning, message, interpretation. Andersson is surprising me with absurdity of life, not always so unexpected. He surprises me with normality. One does not have to be a freak to be weird.

 

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE OR BOUNCING BETWEEN TWO EXTREMES

„Pigeon” is made in the same style as „You, the Living”. Again we have plenty of short scenes, shot from one angle, with no cuts. Filled with absurdity, no actual plot, various way of interpretation. Too deep or too obvious, Andersson bounces between two extremes. The characters and the scenes are overdrawn. Everything happens in one, slow pace. Silence is boring and dulling the vigilance. In comparison, „You, the Living” seemed more... lively.

 

A frame from "Pigeon"

A frame from "Pigeon"

If Andersson shows Swedish society, I felt the criticism towards it in one scene, mocking it in the second and a direct reference to it in the third. The critique is present in a scene with elderly elegant Swedes observing the cruelty, done by non-Sweden. For me this is a reflection on Swedish neutrality in the 20th century. Mocking the Swedish society appears in the last scene. Bunch of people is waiting at the bus stop and one of the men starts to ask if today it's really Wednesday, cause for him it felt like Thursday. The group assures him that yes indeed, it's Wednesday. Additionally, the other man explains, that we all have to agree that it's Wednesday, otherwise there's gonna be chaos. Of course the first man did not imply that we wished it's another day of the week or that he is still gonna pretend it's not Wednesday. It did not hinder the other man to make sure that everything is clear – even if you feel like something else, you have to agree with everyone else in order to keep peace and organization. It might be exaggerated reference to Jantelagen (no one is special, no one should act like they are superior to one another). It is established that it's Wednesday, everyone has to adjust.

And then it's my favourite scene with Charles XII. He, as a Swedish king, should be a clear indicator that Andersson tells something about Sweden. Okay, we have a king with absolute power, everyone serves him even if he has the most ridiculous demands. But... this could be any monarch, right? So for me by using him, the director was more about praising the modernization, understood both as moving from kingdoms to democracy and as equalization of the societies. Choosing Charles XII could simply just give Andersson space to mock king's homosexual needs, which was directly shown. Despite different possible interpretations, I admire Andersson for the technical management of this scene. It's the longest one in the movie and the most complicated. So many elements could go wrong and in the end there is this final version with no cut. Standing ovation.

What if we look at „Pigeon” not as a portrait of Swedish life, but a life itself? All the feelings are phlegmatic. Even love, even anger, even laughter. Is the life so unfair or do we make it this way ourselves? I think that „Swedish society” is just a frame. Andersson is using some obvious cliches and stereotypes (which still can be true!) about his motherland in order to explain something more, something common to all human beings. Or I'm just trying to find deeper meaning which really isn't there. If so, this is just another proof of this director's strength – his movies can be seen through so many shades of interpretation.

 

SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR OR PLOTLESS DIRECTOR

„Songs from the second floor” is the most incisive of Andersson's films. Every theme that we see in his later productions started here on a high note. In contrast to „You, the Living” and „Pigeon.” here you might notice the plot, which evolves around furniture salesman Kalle (Lars Nordh) – even if you could see plot in movies reviewed above, I don't think it mattered there, but here one person is clearly in the spotlight. Two technical components are kept throughout all trilogy: scenes with no cut, directed from one angle and the silence.

A frame from "Songs from the second floor"

A frame from "Songs from the second floor"

When it comes to themes, present in Andersson's movies, religion and Nazism, here they are extremely exposed. With the former I even had a feeling like the director was referring to Ingmar Bergman's „The Seventh Seal” through the figure of flagellants. At the same time he feels perfectly fine with mocking the religion but not as a philosophy or ideology, but it's symbols or people associated with it. So a priest, to which Kalle comes, seeking some sort of council, responds like an entrepreneur. So selling figures with Christ on a cross is a great business. People gather around a former general to celebrate his 100th birthday and he, perceiving this as an elevated moment, wants to send greetings to Göring and does „heil Hitler”.

Roy allowed himself to be bigger. He uses monumental frames and engages enormous amount of people. Neither of this is seen in the other two movies, where scenes are mostly from shot from a flat with couple of characters. Emotions grew with the size of the scenery and the crowd. Not like in „You, the Living” and the „Pigeon” here anger and despair are shown, not just articulated. I'm not judging whether is better or worse approach – although seeing all the emotions phlegmatic and stable shocked me more than all the expressions and outbursts.

A frame from "Songs from the second floor"

A frame from "Songs from the second floor"

This is the weakest Andersson's movie in terms of interpretation possibilities. Scenes have either very clear message (an airport with bunch of people, dragging a pile of luggage is a criticism towards consumptions, people present there want to leave Sweden permanently and it's obvious, still they inform the viewers about that) or characters present directly their thoughts on life (life is a market; we cannot decide on our jobs, on anything, everything is controlled by fate). Andersson shows Kalle's compunction through conversations with a deadman and we don't have to guess that he did something to rush his descent.

And still there was something luring me into the next scene and the next and the next. Maybe because I got used to Andersson, I found out the elements that I like about his movies and still enjoy them, but not as much as before as they did not surprise me anymore. Despite from all of that, I encourage seeing at least one of his movies and try him for yourself.