Filmmaker in Focus: Roy Andersson. The Museum of Modern Art, September 10-18, 2009
Roy Andersson’s world is a bleak place peopled by lonely individuals who inhabit drab monochromatic rooms. Like zombies, the inhabitants trudge across the gloomy cityscape wearing pale, ghoulish makeup. You, the Living (2007), which premiered at Film Forum last summer, is only Andersson’s fourth feature in four decades. Yet it confirms the Swedish filmmaker’s status as a distinctive visual stylist and master of the absurd.
The path to Andersson’s signature style—meticulously composed tableaux filmed on patently artificial sets, shot in one take with a stationary camera—proved circuitous. Andersson scored a critical and commercial success with his first feature, A Swedish Love Story (1970), made when he was barely out of film school. Influenced by the Czech New Wave, it recounts the love between two working-class youths set against the backdrop of an idyllic summer. When producers expected him to repeat the formula, Andersson grew depressed, convinced that naturalistic film had reached a cul-de-sac. Eventually he completed his more stylized second feature, Giliap (1975), a bone-dry comedy about a waiter in a gloomy hotel entangled in a bizarre love triangle. Elliptical and slow, the film casts a hypnotic spell. Misunderstood at the time, it was ravaged by the critics and shunned by audiences. Consequently, Andersson found himself a pariah in the Swedish film industry.
Just as he was about to abandon filmmaking, Andersson landed a job directing a series of TV commercials for an insurance company. The humorous ads garnered huge acclaim and Andersson became one of Sweden’s most sought-after commercials directors. In 1981 he launched his own production company (Studio 24), to enable him to make films in a stubbornly artisanal way at his Stockholm-based studio. A perfectionist comparable to Stanley Kubrick or Jacques Tati, Andersson builds elaborate sets, creating painstaking trompe l’oeil effects with the aid of miniatures. In 2000 he unveiled the apocalyptic Songs from the Second Floor. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, it snatched the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. After a 25-year forced hiatus from narrative cinema, Andersson was hailed as an auteur to be reckoned with. Drenched in millennial dread, Songs from the Second Floor deals with personal and collective guilt. It might sound lugubrious, but the film is hilarious, full of gags as pokerfaced as they are pitch-black.
Anderson continues to address moral and metaphysical concerns in You, the Living, but also focuses on quotidian struggles: a man attempting to buy a train ticket keeps changing queues to no avail; an elderly man walking his dog unwittingly drags the poor creature along the pavement; a teenage girl pines for her rock star idol in a strange bar where it’s always closing time; a corpulent woman straddles her feeble husband while he details his financial woes. Recurring characters weave their way through the 50-odd tableaux, yet there’s no protagonist or overarching plot. Instead, the vignettes link up by atmosphere or theme. As in Luis Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, characters periodically turn to the camera and recount their dreams. In one breathtaking sequence, a groom serenades his bride on electric guitar while their bridal suite glides across the landscape like a train. The shot, which took over two months to realize, demonstrates the lengths Anderson will go to achieve a desired cinematic effect.
I spoke to Andersson at the Museum of Modern Art at his retrospective in September.
Ethan Spigland (Rail): You’ve talked about being more influenced by painters than by filmmakers. You often mention the German expressionists and Otto Dix.
Roy Andersson: He’s my favorite! Also, Edward Hopper. These paintings are condensed, purified—what isn’t necessary for the picture is subtracted—as in cartoons. I try to reach that level of concentration.
Rail: Did your distinct use of color and light originate from painting as well?
Andersson: I found that I didn’t like light that was too flattering or romantic. I wanted a light without mercy, because there shouldn’t be shadows for the characters to hide in.
Rail: Yet, I never feel contempt for humanity in your films.
Andersson: I hope so. I really want to take care of people; to show that at bottom all of us are lost, forsaken. But I don’t blame God, because I don’t believe in God.
Rail: Chaplin said that life is tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot. Your films are tragedies and comedies, tragicomedies, done in long shot.
Andersson: I have written about that. I think your room says more about you than your face. The face is expressive, but a person’s surroundings express even more about him or her.
Rail: In long shot you can also see the body and its gestures.
Andersson: Yes, and also, when you describe the human being in a room, there will always be a tragic dimension. You will have a feeling of forsakenness, vulnerability, and a little tragedy. Because when you see a man in his room it’s a sign of vanity.
Rail: Your films deal with human tragedies, so of course there’s something universal about them. At the same time, I perceive a critical and political dimension to them—something specific to Sweden.
Andersson: I want to describe arbitrariness. Arbitrariness rules and makes people suffer. And I think that is true all over the world.
Rail: In You, the Living the man does the tablecloth trick, and finds himself sentenced to death for destroying antique china. I noticed there were swastikas in the pattern of the tabletop. Is that a reference to Sweden’s role during the war?
Andersson: Yes, there was collaboration with the Germans.
Rail: I’m also thinking about some of the scenes that depict racism against immigrants.
Andersson: Sweden is not far from the rest of the world, so of course, when you are specific about Sweden you are also universal.
Rail: How do you begin sketching out your tableaux?
Andersson: Sometimes I begin with a single sentence. For example, with Songs from the Second Floor, I was very inspired by a sentence I overheard: “My son went nuts writing poetry.” Of course it’s not enough—you have to place that sentence in a very special setting. So sometimes I start with an image, sometimes with a single sentence.
Rail: Do you do tests before the actual shooting begins?
Andersson: Yes, we do a lot of tests in 35mm. I use the tests as a typewriter.
Rail: The French New Wave spoke about the camera-stylo—the camera as pen.
Andersson: It’s only possible because I have my own studio. Before that, when I was in the hands of other producers, it was impossible.
Rail: I’m curious about the role of dreams in You, the Living. Where do the dreams in the film come from?
Andersson: After I changed my style in 1985, I began to place more trust in stylization and abstraction—I suddenly felt much freer. But while making You, the Living, I discovered that I could go one step further: I could use dreams as well. With the help of dreams you can be as free as you wish.
Rail: The film begins with a man sleeping and having a nightmare about the bombers. At the end of the film, we see the approaching bombers above the city. Could some of the dreams be related to national trauma, to something that Sweden as a nation might want to repress, to keep hidden under a rug or tablecloth?
Andersson: Let’s say we filmed the sequence with the tablecloth as a realistic scene in which we accused the society of Sweden of having collaborated with the Germans. That would be more banal than using a dream—with a dream you can go much further.
Rail: In You, the Living there’s strong emphasis on music: characters occasionally burst into song; there’s a jazz band. And the rhythm of the film itself is musical in numerous ways.
Andersson: When I made Giliap I didn’t want to use film music at all, because of the way Hollywood film music influences an audience. But I’ve changed my mind—now I want to use more music than I did before. And the truth is that I’m also a musician.
Rail: You play trombone, right?
Andersson: Trombone, yes, and I’m happy to have introduced that kind of music in modern times—traditional jazz from New Orleans.
Rail: It contrasts strikingly with the melancholy mood and bleak situations. One of my favorite scenes is the one in the practice room where the musicians play along to the sounds of the rain and thunder.
Andersson: That’s a memory of my youth when I started to play trombone. We rehearsed in those sorts of halls. I like that scene too. Nothing much happens in it.
Rail: Yet it captures something, something ineffable.
Andersson: And the drummer is carrying his bass drum in plastic to avoid getting it wet in the rain.
Rail: Yes, it’s a wonderfully human moment. Your films avoid traditional narrative structure.
Andersson: I found that telling a story is a little too banal. If you forget about story and just show human situations, it’s more rich and surprising. I want people to be constantly surprised. Once you have a story, you can predict its development.
Rail: When watching a Hollywood film, the spectator isn’t given much freedom to imagine what could happen next or to explore the frame spatially. In your films the spectator is less manipulated.
Andersson: Unfortunately, audiences are not used to that in our time.
Rail: Can you say something about your next project?
Andersson: It’s a sum-up of my life, of the way I see existence. I have a preliminary title: A Dove Sitting on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. With a title like that you can be totally free—it’s not predictable. A painting by Breughel inspires it. It depicts a bird sitting on a branch overlooking a city. You can see the city from above and all the human activities below. Stylistically it will be similar to Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, but this time I want to reach two things: more brutality as well as more poetry. And also more jokes, more humor.
Ethan Spigland is a filmmaker, visual artist, writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is a Professor in the Graduate Program of Media Studies at Pratt Institute.