Surreal Songs: The Roy Andersson Collection – Blu-ray review
The Roy Andersson Collection (out now) brings together three of the Swedish director’s previous films to tie in with his latest, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence. That film is reviewed here; the remaining three are reviewed below.
Songs From The Second Floor
(Roy Andersson, 2000)
The film with which Andersson made his name remains the touchstone, not only for his subsequent career but anybody wanting auteurist, art-house comedy.
For anybody whose introduction to the work of Roy Andersson was A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence, be aware: he has form. Songs From The Second Floor was the film in which he perfected his latter-day style: a mordant sketch show, populated by shambling, ashen-faced losers bemoaning “it’s not easy being human” and full of darkly comic, if now downright bleak, twists.
What’s really impressive is how consistent Andersson is. You can tell from a single frame that you’re watching one of his films, with its almost totally static camera, carefully angled composition and mise en scene with concealed entrances and depth of field, all the better to spring brilliant surprises from off-screen. One of Songs’ many scenes appears to exist solely to demonstrate this latter capacity, as a nurse moves a bed (apparently the subject of the scene) further down a hospital corridor so that another can usurp its place in the foreground.
Director-led, sketch-format comedy is a rarity – even eventual auteurs like Python members Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam initially controlled the screen from in front of the camera – but Andersson is clearly the star here. There is fiendish ingenuity, with activity in several planes. In one brilliant staged moment, a man enters a bar from the street where an endless traffic jam is taking place (captured with surreal but perfectly executed forced perspective)… but while you’re watching the cars a sublime sight gag takes place in the foreground involving a bag of ashes.
If that sense of urban ennui and mechanisation sounds like Tati’s Playtime, this could easily be double-billed with it, except that Andersson is on a downer as far as city life goes. The second floor doesn’t refer to any specific place, but seems to encapsulate the boardrooms, hospitals, apartments and other faceless institutions where people try to escape from the existential gridlock below, where the only people moving are self-flagellating zealots.
It’s all about stock prices, apparently – a financial crisis that forces Kalle, the nearest to a main protagonist, to burn down his business in an insurance scam, only to end up selling tacky statues of the Crucifixion while a growing army of ghosts, led by a pal he owed money to, stalk him. As the tone gets darker, Andersson stages bravura pieces of ghoulish imagination (one set-piece involving a sacrifice pushes close to being too dark, just as a similar scene of exploitation did at much the same point in A Pigeon…).
Austerity-era Britain is a good time to revisit this film, then. Aside from a scene set at a trade exhibition looking forward to the Millennium, Andersson largely removes signifiers of time and place so that this is a timeless fable – or a song, and in the film’s most hauntingly beautiful moment, a train carriage full of passengers begins to harmonise with the soundtrack with angelic grace.
You, The Living
(Roy Andersson, 2007)
More songs from Andersson’s mordantly witty cityscape, except this time – perhaps – approaching a tone of hope, however stifled by life’s madness.
When a director creates a style as distinctive as Roy Andersson, it must be difficult not to fall into the trap of repeating himself – or, at least, of succumbing to self-parody. Songs From The Second Floor was such a singular vision (few films are compared to Beckett, Bergman and Monty Python) that You, The Living had the kind of high expectations from which directors usually plummet to their artistic death.
Yet what this film (and, later, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence) proved is the durability of Andersson’s style. On the surface, this is more of the same – static, artfully composed tableaux, populated by pallid people engaged in mordantly comical activities – yet You, The Living (named after a Goethe line about the thin line between life and death) has something its predecessor, and especially its follow-up, lack. By contrast, this is cheery stuff.
Relatively cheery, I should stress. The dramatis personae is of depressives and thieves, unrequited lovers and the perpetually disappointed. Indeed, there are hints they might be stuck in purgatory, symbolised by a bar where it is always last orders. Nonetheless, the characters in You, The Living are predisposed to dream as much as they have nightmares, their hopes soundtracked by the disconcertingly jaunty strains of a dixieland band even as the apocalypse approaches.
And, amazingly, the camera moves – not often, and not much, but with a gradual movement that suggests it might actually want to spend time with people that, usually in Andersson, it’d much rather keep its distance from. It helps that this is laugh-out-loud in a way the other films don’t quite capture, especially in a brilliantly sustained tablecloth trick (you know exactly what’s going to happen but Andersson draws additional hilarity from the meticulous preparations) or a spot of opportunistic theft in a restaurant.
Meanwhile, the fact that Andersson had already perfected his remarkable style means that this is one to enjoy for its technical proficiency. It is simply exquisite to watch, in terms of the placement of décor or the movement of actors within the frame. Andersson makes things look simple, when of course the precision of lighting and choreography have been painstakingly planned. What’s most remarkable is the depth of field, which allows us to view goings-on in the street outside. The entire film, it seems, takes place in a densely populated cityscape, akin to Jacques Tati’s Playtime or – perhaps more usefully – Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (perhaps the only other film of recent films to be quite so melancholy in its laughter).
A Swedish Love Story
(Roy Andersson, 1970)
The camera moves with the same freewheeling energy as youthful central duo, but there are hints of Andersson’s dispassionate observation of social malaise.
Well, here’s a revelation. The hermetic world of Roy Andersson’s famous trilogy “about the human condition,” which comprise the rest of this boxset, is so well-defined that A Swedish Love Story – made 30 years before Songs From The Second Floor – feels like the radical choice, despite being (by normal standards) a classical piece of filmmaking.
It’s well-known in Sweden, of course; it actually won the local equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar at the time. Yet Andersson’s near-total exile from cinema in the interim (he shot only one further feature in the 20th Century, 1975’s Giliap – a disappointing absence here), allied to the strength of his latter-day style, has rendered it an artistic cul-de-sac.
It’s a lively, lovely film, a rite-of-passage flick that gradually opens out into more familiar Andersson territory, but without losing its insouciance; its sarcasm isn’t as stifling as the later films. It’s clearly the work of a young man, in thrall (as all young men in 1970 were) to the New Waves of France and Czechoslovakia but bringing to it a suitably Nordic sensibility.
As a frolicsome love story, it’s hard to beat. Visually, it’s almost too good to be true, its dappled summer lighting looking like the film comes with its own Instagram filter; for good measure, Andersson includes a ‘selfie’ sequence decades before the word was invented, that’s funnier and more charming than anything we’re likely to see during the next few years. And stars Rolf Sohlman (as Pär) and Ann-Sofie Kylin (as Annick) are ridiculously beautiful, their piercing blue eyes and tousled hair giving them the look of models.
It should have all the substance of a soft drinks commercial, except that Andersson’s direction gives their lingering glances, awkward courtship and cusp-of-innocence fumblings a lived-in authenticity. While the modish camerawork is a far cry from Songs From The Second Floor, his decision to shoot using long lenses means that events have the feeling of being captured spontaneously, while – crucially – the distance allows Andersson a certain wryness of tone.
That’s most obvious in the treatment of the lovers’ families, whose bitterness and banalities gradually come to dominate the film. The idyllic romance is punctuated by scenes of trademark Andersson whimsy – notably a deadpan argument about the installation of a pair of swinging doors – but the final act threatens to rob Pär and Annick of their star billing entirely. At a party hosted by the boy’s clan to welcome his girlfriend’s family, Annick’s father drunkenly takes out his life’s disappointments on his hosts, fuelling a bizarre Buñuelian incident halfway between comedy and horror, to which the lovers remain blissfully unaware.
Is this a portrait of doomed youth? Are the petty squabbles of adulthood already going to rupture the Edenic existence of innocent teenagers? Or is this a more pointed condemnation of capitalist rule (the drunken father is a fridge salesman) in the wake of 1968? Politics are largely absent, bar a prophecy from a bit-part character early on… and he’s in an mental institution. The film ends with a creepily enigmatic fade-to-black, the question unresolved… but, in its strange way, the ending sort-of explains why Andersson’s cinema would lead away from the young into the singular, sepulchral films of later life.