(Dir. Roy Andersson. 2015)
Roy Andersson is a 72 year old Swedish director who has carved a unique niche in cinema with his style of remote, black, humour. In a career that has spanned from 1970’s “A Swedish Love Story” through to this year’s equally self explanatorily titled film. The title, by the way, comes from Pieter Bruegel’s 1565 painting “Hunters in the Snow”, which contains a rural winter scene including various birds perched on branches. Andersson wondered what the birds would think of the people below and saw his film as “a different way of saying ‘what are we actually doing?’”. But Andersson is not a dramatist in the conventional sense. Some might call him a surrealist, others a (rather deadpan and bleak, admittedly) humorist or even satirist. The Village Voice once described him as a “slapstick Ingmar Bergman”, and while slapstick might be a (comedic?) exaggeration, it gives a good indication of the themes and contradictions contained in his films.
This film (even the acronym, APSOABROE is something of a mouthful) is a collection of short vignettes, mostly unconnected though some feature returning characters in later scenes. They are all set in a bizarrely perfect yet utterly drab stylised Swedish city, with floors and streets immaculately swept and wiped clean, all in varying tones of khaki, olive and pine. Furnishings are sparse – empty spaces are more predominant than any distracting detail – and seem to come from a certain Swedish furniture store, if it were locked in an impoverished 1970s. The characters, likewise, seem to be timeless: men are mostly in dark grey suits and/or off-white shirts, with women in a style locked somewhere in a 1970s remembering the 1940s apparel. The scenes range from a cafe in a ship, an underground bar, a medical laboratory, a school hall, a dance class, a street outside a restaurant, a hospital room, a flop house reception, corridor and a room, an executive office, a living room, a museum and a handful of joke shops where the two most frequent characters appear failing to sell outdated and absurd “joke” items. All are lit universally so that almost no shadows are cast, creating a sense of studio-based unreality to the otherwise hyper-real mundanity of the production.
Within a couple of the scenes, one realises that there is one unifying device throughout the film – the camera is fixed and does not move, zoom or cut at all during each scene. Everything is as if watching a scene from a play from one vantage point, an unflinching stare at a scenario that unfolds at a pace as discomforting as the setting itself. Not all scenes are confined to, somewhat claustrophobic, interiors but even when outside, the colours are drawn from the same palette, the lighting the same blanket shallow white, and no change in the pacing and placid absurdity. Whether it is on a beach or a park beside a pond, there is no indication of where this city is, but we do see a grim industrial landscape on the horizon in some scenes.
What are these scenes, then? If there were “main” characters to this extended sketch show, it would be Jonathan and Sam, a pair of travelling salesmen who produce from a case three ridiculous comedy items – long vampire teeth, a laughing cushion and an “uncle one tooth” rubber mask causes more fear than laughter. The pair, like a Laurel and Hardy on ketamine, run through the same routine when trying unsuccessfully to sell these items, with perhaps unsurprising lack of success. We also see them in a flop house, with a scene where one of them sits at a table listening to the same few seconds of a song on a portable record player again and again. In another scene they demand payment from a shop owner hiding in the back room while his wife placates them at the front desk. We understand that Jonathan and Sam are under pressure to sell their items and pay their bosses, as if there is a crap comedy mafia pressing its dark influence over this bland Scandinavian society. In another scene we jump back in time to 1943 but stay in place, in the bar below street level, as if the patrons memories are recorded in the exact same style as the film reality they live in. Half populated by sailors and soldiers, an older barmaid with an outrageous limp begins a song about shots for those without pennies, instead in exchange for a kiss. As the sailors and soldiers partake in the song, they line up to get their shot and give her increasingly amorous kisses. Like in other scenes that have bystanders, they sit and watch impassively.
The role of bystanders only becomes significant in one of the most memorable, and bizarre, scenes. At a bar with a wide front window, when soldiers on horseback ride up from the 1708 Swedish invasion of Russia. A cavalryman rides into the bar, first ordering the music from the jukebox be turned off, then the women to leave – which they do in fear while the men remain, impassive. Then to some fanfare and absurdity King Charles XII rides in. Three of his men kneel down before him to provide a human staircase and carpet (they remain so for the rest of the 16 minute scene) and the young king is seated at the bar and his order relayed via his servant – a glass of sparkling water. The King decides he likes the young bar tender and has him join his march to the Russian front. Then the King mounts up and rides out, all the while dozens of uniformed soldiers march or ride by in full 18th century uniform. We return to this scene, to the same bar, as the army returns, bloodied and defeated. The wounded King is led back in and this time, the women of the bar break down into howling and weeping. A scene that would normally be moving becomes utterly bizarre, a dislocation of time that confounds the emotion into something that one can do little but laugh at.
This is the emotional timbre of the whole film. When a passenger on a ferry dies from a heart attack after ordering a meal and drink at the cafe, the concern of the staff turns to what will happen to the beer and food. They turn to the typically passive bystanders, and an agonising silence grows until an even more agonising character raises a hand, stands, and moves forth to collect the prize. The bleakness is thrown into sharp relief, not punctured or dispelled, by the awkward absurdity. Throughout, the dark sense of futility and desperation is as universal as the unflinching, shadowless, light – with exception. Sprinkled amidst the Bergmanesque slapstick are respites, interludes even, of light. They are simple, wordless, isolated scenes: a young couple laid on a blanket on a sandy dune, a woman with a pram sat on a park bench, a couple leaning on a balcony sharing a (post-coital) cigarette. But these breaks in the cloud are bracketed by scenes that go beyond the absurd and touch deeply discomforting nerves. Foremost of these comes toward the end, where men dressed in pith helmets and khaki of an old African colonial soldier unit are whipping and prodding black Africans into a giant copper barrel suspended above a fire pit like a barbecue. Once in, the door is sealed, the first lit, and it begins to rotate. In the first and only cut of the film, we go to a wide shot of a patio door above row of low steps. The rotating copper barrel is seen in reflection until the door opens and a group of elderly and decrepit (white) men and women in what looks like evening wear hobble out and watch the spectacle, impassively. This scene encapsulates the wider question viewers may have as to if the darkness, the absurdity and (bleak) comedy have any actual purpose or meaning. Andersson has given no further insight beyond that it is looking at how life is lived and what we do. The director’s style is persistent and rigorous, a singular method of representation and tone of voice and is far from regular in terms of tone, style, narrative (not that there is one) and character. But what is there within the perfectly familiar yet alien locations and quite desperate and somewhat disturbed characters is capable of being quite affecting.