by Matt Levine
When Songs from the Second Floor was released in 2000, I remember Roger Ebert describing it as Monty Python meets Ingmar Bergman – which, for a tenth-grader whose burgeoning cinematic education was at that point limited to few foreign films outside of those, was an irresistible pitch. It proved to be an apt description: Roy Andersson's sixth feature (he's been active since the late '60s) was a mostly plotless, freeform series of absurdist scenes revolving around themes of loneliness, communication, and happiness (or lack thereof). Blending Bergman's existential doubt with the Monty Python troupe's penchant for the mordantly ridiculous, it was a major moment in my understanding of international cinema, and remains one of my favorite movies of the young new millennium.
Walker Art Center
Director: Roy Andersson
Producer: Pernilla Sandström
Writer: Roy Andersson
Cinematographers: István Borbás, Gergely Pálos
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
Music: Hani Jazzar, Gorm Sundberg
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nisse Vestblom, Charlotta Larsson, Viktor Gyllenberg, Lotti Törnros, Jonas Gerholm, Ola Stensson, Oscar Salamonsson, Roger Olsen Likvern
Countries: Sweden/Germany/Norway/ France
Premiere: September 2, 2014 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 3, 2015
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Andersson's newest film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, finds him in similar territory – which isn't to say the experience is quite the same. Again, Andersson mostly does away with a cohesive storyline, although the plight of two morose co-workers who sell novelty items (or don't) forms something of a unifying structure. The film is primarily a series of absurdist episodes revolving around happiness, sorrow, sex, death, war, work, racism, communication – as the title implies, human existence.
The first image provides a telling indication of what's to come: two people gawk at dioramas of birds within glass cases in a hushed museum, pondering the nature of such animals. Stylistically, this opening shot cues us in to Andersson's aesthetic: the single-shot, long-take setup (the camera never moves throughout the film); the muted color scheme, comprised mostly of beige, creamy white, and pea green; and an emphasis on the grotesquely comic, as the characters are slathered in white makeup to make them look like walking cadavers, about as far from typical movie actors as possible. But this opening also foreshadows the film's thematic concerns: just as the humans in this scene stare ponderously at beasts encased in glass, so will the audience, throughout the next 100 minutes, observe humans within the widescreen frame as though we're analyzing specimens under a microscope.
As with Songs from the Second Floor, Andersson's newest is laugh-out-loud funny, but the tone is usually bittersweet and melancholy. A sort of impulsive poetry inspires the progression from scene to scene: three short scenes about death segue into a tap-dance performance that symbolizes sex, recalling Woody Allen's quote that sex and death are "two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death you're not nauseous." Characters reappear in the background of subsequent scenes, or walk into a new locale, progressing the plot; flashbacks to the 1940s might be set in the same building as a present-day scene. About an hour in, we finally see the sun and blue skies as the possibility of real tenderness and communication is permitted, only to follow this with one of the film's most bleak and disturbing scenes. If Andersson is the titular pigeon reflecting on existence, his observations might be scattershot but they also have a dreamy fluidity.
Andersson's worldview is admittedly pretty dismal, as most of the human figures in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch are essentially animals trying to convince themselves that they're civilized. Many of the jokes are built on a twisted irony, including characters whose vocation totally runs counter to their being: not only the two men who sell novelty gags (vampire teeth, canned laughter) but are totally humorless, but also a ferry captain prone to seasickness. One of the best running gags involves the line "I'm happy to hear you're doing fine" spoken by someone on a phone – it's funny because the speakers never sound happy, and it's hard to imagine the person on the other end of the line doing even remotely fine. At times, the comedy disappears entirely, especially in a powerfully blunt depiction of slavery. And yet – more so than in Songs from the Second Floor – there are moments of joy and beauty. Two lovers grope on a beach, their dog leashed next to them; a woman sits on a bench, giddily kissing her infant's feet. Existence might be daunting and confusing, but after all, Andersson seems to imply, it might be worth it.
Fifteen years after seeing Songs from the Second Floor, there are a few cinematic influences I've spotted in Andersson's work beyond Bergman and Monty Python: Buñuel's latter-day surrealist films, for example, and Jacques Tati, whose deep-focus style allowed action to take place on numerous planes simultaneously, giving viewers the chance to focus on whatever they please. (Unfortunately I haven't seen any of Andersson's earlier movies, which seem hard to find in the States.) But Andersson's comedies (if that's what they are) really are unique: formally precise, incredibly ambitious, funny and moving in equal measure, cold yet sympathetic. Those who crave strong narratives might complain that A Pigeon Sat on a Branch is about nothing. But that's the thing with such loosely structured films: in their unexpected twists and turns, they might actually be about everything at once.