Category: Nordic Cinema

Glasgow FF15 #12: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, Swe/Nor/Fra/Ger 2014)

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

This was one of the first films on my booking list. Roy Andersson won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2014 for this, only his fifth feature in a career that began in 1970. I enjoyed his previous film You, the Living (2007) very much and hoped for something similar but also different. ‘Pigeon’ is referred to as the third in a loose trilogy so it is indeed similar and at first I was a little disappointed because the overall idea  and the approach – several short comic scenes knitted together by a handful of characters – are identical to the earlier film (and I suspect to the first in the series, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) which I haven’t seen).

Bruegel's painting

Bruegel’s painting

It wasn’t until a few days later when I studied Andersson’s excellent website for the film, watched the trailer and flicked through the stills that I began to remember more of the sketches and to understand more of what he was getting at. The strange title refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), and the three birds sat on branches in the tree in the foreground. This famous painting has been referenced by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky. Andersson suggests that the birds take a panoramic view of human activities and the human condition – and that they are astonished that humans cannot see the coming apocalypse. Andersson shares their view and intends that we should be aware that we could change our behaviour and avert the tragedy for ourselves and the planet.

In order to present the pigeon’s view, Andersson selects a distinct aesthetic, moving away from realism and naturalism and drawing on ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ – the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He’s referring to both fine art and photography and in his notes he refers to a particular photograph by August Sander, entitled ‘The Pastry Chef’ (1928) in which the subject looks “trapped, aggressive and dangerous”. So, in his vignettes looking at the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Sweden, Andersson sets out to tell little stories, some tragic, some sad, some pathetic. His chosen approach involves using painted sets with reduced colour palettes and using his company of ‘ordinary-looking’ actors with pale make-up. His camera usually remains static and keeps its distance from the actors so the vignettes play out in tableaux – often with a great deal going on in the background.

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of corse it is occupied!

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of course it is occupied!

Some of the vignettes are historical such as the one represented in the image above which refers to (I think) the young king Charles II in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century in which the Swedish Empire took on the Russians – please correct me if I’ve got this wrong. The bar is a popular location for Andersson since people go there to drown their sorrows and to seek solace with strangers.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop – note the carefully painted walls.

'Sancho Panza and Don Quixote' – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

‘Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’ – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

The main linking device between the vignettes id the sad progress of the two travelling salesmen. If you look carefully you’ll see them in the image of the bar above – one of them is wearing the ‘Uncle One-Tooth Mask’, one of their ‘bestsellers’.

I remember some very darkly comic moments in Andersson’s previous film. One included a man eating from a large box of popcorn as he watched an execution in a prison. This new film has two very disturbing scenes featuring animal cruelty and the hideousness of (British) colonial barbarism. I confess to being puzzled as to exactly what Andersson intended these to say – but perhaps I’m expecting too much in terms of clarity.

Overall this is a wonderful film because of its use of film language as well as offering both comic relief and piercing commentary. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the music. I loved ‘Limping Lotte’s Bar’ in 1943.

The trailer from the Roy Andersson website:

Glasgow FF15 #8: Life in a Fishbowl (Vonarstræti, Iceland-Finland-Sweden-Czech Republic 2014)

Solvi, Eik and Mori

Sölvi, Eik and Móri

Life in a Fishbowl is the kind of film this blog seeks to promote. It has been a major hit in its own territory and won in virtually every category of Iceland’s national film awards. Internationally it has been praised as well – but it has also been dismissed as formulaic and ‘routine’. The Hollywood Reporter review is a case in point. It compares the film unfavourably to two respected Hollywood films and never discusses it as an Icelandic film. This is the kind of thing that really pisses me off. Let me explain.

Life in a ‘fishbowl’ is in some ways an excellent metaphor for what it must be like to live in a nation of 350,000 people which has nevertheless produced international performers in a number of disciplines. It’s perhaps easier to be a big fish in a small pond, but it’s quite difficult to be ‘unknown’. The film has been described as a multi-strand narrative and an ‘ensemble piece’. I’m not sure it is either of these, but I did keep thinking about those Nordic Noir novels and long-form TV serials. The film runs to 130 mins but I could happily have watched it over four or five single one hour episodes. I’ve learned from Icelandic crime novels and a handful of films that there is plenty of darkness in Icelandic stories – but also possibilities of hope.

There are three central characters in Life in a Fishbowl with personal narratives which will eventually overlap. Eik (Hera Hilmar) is an attractive young woman who was a teenage single mother and now has an 8 year-old daughter at 24. She works in a nursery school and supplements her income by working occasional nights as a call girl for local businessmen – trying to reduce her overdraft. Sölvi (Thor Kristjansson) is a handsome young footballer who has had to give up the game because of injury and has been taken on as a banking executive, adding some glamour to the management team. Finally, Móri (Þorsteinn Bachmann) is a poet and novelist who has become a sad alcoholic – but one still capable of producing an important autobiographical novel. These three are indeed familiar characters, but in context they represent much more. While Eik is perhaps the familiar figure of the damaged young woman n Nordic Noir, the other two characters are Icelandic heroes – the artist/novelist and footballer who might be feted in Northern Europe capitals as well as at home, especially in the years immediately before the financial crash of 2008 devastates Iceland. So, we have Iceland on the edge of the precipice with two potential national heroes and stories that delve into a dark past. I won’t give away what happens except to say that all three characters have a link to small daughters. The direct link between the three is that Sölvi has a daughter at the school where Eik works and that he is charged with trying to buy Móri’s house as part of his bank’s redevelopment plans. Móri’s house is near to the school and he likes to watch the young girls playing in the school grounds. That sounds provocative but don’t jump to conclusions. I think this manipulation of what seems like three typical characters in familiar narratives is actually well-worked. The performances are all very good, the ‘Scope cinematography works as does the music. It’s a Nordic melodrama and I had tears in my eyes at the end. If you are a jaded soul who sees everything through Hollywood lenses you might not get too much from the film but for the rest of us, it works like a treat. This second feature by writer-director Baldvin Zophoníasson is one of the films competing for the audience award at Glasgow. It stands a good chance.

Persona (Sweden 1966)

Elisabet and Alma

This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.

The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.

Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over

This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.

Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en Spegel, Sweden 1961)

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

The Leeds International Film Festival is screening a short retrospective of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Happily the programme opened with this film – a masterpiece and for me one of the finest films by the director. Two friends seeing the film for the first time were impressed. This is one of what are described as Bergman’s ‘chamber works’, strongly influenced by August Strindberg and with the title taken from a Letter by the Apostle Saint Paul to the Corinthians. There is a dedication to his wife Kabi, who provided an important influence on his musical taste and knowledge

The film is set on the Island of Fårö. It involves four characters – a writer and father David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband a university professor Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s young son Minos (Lars Passgård). We also hear of two other characters, David’s dead wife and his ex-girl-friend. The action takes place over 24 hours, from evening to evening. The film opens as the four finish a swim in the sea. We learn that David has just returned from Switzerland where he was writing a novel. Karin recently left hospital where she was being treated for mental illness. They have supper and then Minos and Karin (with help from Martin) perform a short play for David. The play appears to have a purpose directed at David. Next day David and Martin leave the Island to buy necessities: their conversation and its filming are very revealing of the two men. Karin and Minos, talk, walk and then shelter in a wrecked boat in the rain. The crisis in the story follows. At the end of the film David talks to Minos as evening closes in. The final shot of the film is a large close-up of Minos in front of a window – behind him we can see the sun low over the horizon. The film then ends with a blank screen or on this occasion the logo of the Festival.

All the performances are superb, but the film is dominated by Harriet Andersson’s Karin. This is a marvellously complex and moving performance. All the performances bring out the tensions, evasions, psychological wounds and character changes in the film. The setting of the Island is beautifully evoked by the superb cinematography of Sven Nykvist, ably supported by the editor Ulla Ryghe and the art director P A Lindgren. And the film makes limited but judicious use of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Violoncello Suite No 2.  The light shimmers on the sea, and the changes from dusk to daylight and from light to shadow are exceptional. Fortunately the film was screened in 35mm – it would have need an above average transfer and at least 4K digital to do it justice.

The film is part of a trilogy including Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1962) and The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963). Time Out comments

… films that are generally seen as addressing Bergman’s increasing disillusionment with the emotional coldness of his inherited Lutheran religion.

The Catalogue quotes Bergman’s own claim that

What I wanted, most deeply, was to depict a case of religions hysteria.

But I thought the film was not really about religion but spirituality, possibly in a humanist sense – rather in the manner found in the films of Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu. It is a powerful representation of the trials and difficulties of family relationships, albeit not a typical family. Like much of Bergman’s work it also relates the past to the present. I think viewers will find themselves considering the influence on Karin’s state of her father, husband and brother. The film is bleak but also offer lyrical moments. In the final sequence there is an ambiguity of the last light of day. And the abrupt ending leaves us to consider what we have seen and heard.