Now streaming on MUBI, this Roy Andersson film appeared at Venice in 2019 and has been joined on the international arthouse circuit by a documentary about Andersson’s work, Being a Human Person (UK-Sweden 2020) by Fred Scott. I’d like to see the documentary. It is suggested that Roy Andersson is unlikely to make another feature and this, possibly last, film certainly feels like a distillation of his ideas, emotions and aesthetics. It’s a shortish feature, just under 80 minutes and I think that it will take me at least a couple of later viewings to appreciate it properly.
The structure and the distinctive style of the last three Andersson films Songs from the Second Floor (2000) You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) is continued in the new film with no plot as such but a series of vignettes, shot with a static camera and often great depth of field, usually on meticulously painted sets featuring a very subdued colour palette and white-faced actors, mostly selected to represent ‘ordinary people’. The two different scenes that stand out are one of a couple moving through the sky over a bombed city (Cologne) like Lois Lane and Superman and the other a shot in which what seems like an entire defeated army is marching through the snow to Siberia. I assumed that Andersson couldn’t afford thousands of extras but I couldn’t see the join as the faceless soldiers presumably walked past the camera more than once. There is at least one mini narrative threaded through the series in which we follow a despairing priest who has lost his faith and there is one sequence which melds into another – i.e a character walks out of one scene and ends up in another. Unlike in the previous film, I don’t think there is a key scene which in some way provides a focus for the others (e.g. as the Breughel painting does in the Pigeon film).
Andersson has been seen as influenced by painters rather than filmmakers. His scenes, usually in a tableau arrangement, dispense with cuts, close-ups and camera movement – those cinematic devices that lead us to make connections by controlling our gaze. But he can still use the movement of figures within the frame and music, dialogue and effects. And we can let our gaze run freely round the scene to find details not apparent at first glance. One important point to note is that this film is shorter than the others at under 80 minutes. It also appeared only five years after Pigeon, rather than the seven year gaps between the earlier films. Perhaps Andersson was more concerned to get the film out while he was still able. This is mentioned in the documentary film cited above. My own feeling is that About Endlessness is if anything even more bleak than the earlier films but this then throws into greater relief the two moments most associated with love and joy and the human spirit. One of these is a musical interlude outside a café. The other I found quietly devastating. A man and a little girl are standing with umbrellas during a heavy downpour. They are out in the open, crossing a large playing field and we understand that they are going to a party. The man bends down to tie the little girl’s shoelaces and as he does so his umbrella is blown away. He has to chase and retrieve it through the mud and puddles. He does so and returns to tie the laces on the other shoe. In one sense, it is a nothing scene, but it’s also a reference to ‘silent’ comedy and in the context of the other scenes it seems like a blast of pure humanity. I’ve just watched this scene again (the benefits of streaming) and I realise I’d forgotten that there is a disembodied female voice telling us that this is father and daughter on their way to a partner. I’m not sure yet what this commentary (which runs across several scenes) adds to or changes the way the film works differently to the earlier films.
Without a central narrative, it is difficult to remember all the scenes or the order in which they appear (if this is important) but it also means that the viewer can return to the film and find something which feels new each time. These 21st century Andersson films are unique in their style and tone. Yet sometimes a scene reminds me of another film or in one scene here, a Swedish novel I was reading just before I watched the film. I’ve mentioned the benefits of re-watching scenes when the film is available on a subscription streaming service, but I’d still like to watch this film on a big screen in a cinema. If you haven’t seen any of Andersson’s work, I’m not sure if this is the best one to start with, but I urge you to watch at least one. I think you’ll then want to see the rest.
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).
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.
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.
The main linking device between the vignettes is 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:
Bent Hamer is a well-known Norwegian writer-director whose earlier film Kitchen Stories (2003) was reviewed by Keith last year. I didn’t read Keith’s review at the time and in some ways I’m glad that I came to O’Horten in relative ignorance of Hamer’s approach. After the first ten minutes of the film I thought “this is going to be delightful”. The wonderfully named Odd Horten (impressively played by Bård Owe) is a 67 year-old train driver on his penultimate trip to Bergen and back from Oslo. When he returns his colleagues give him a dinner at which there are quizzes about railway sounds and he is presented with a ‘silver locomotive’ on a plinth. But when Odd is persuaded (against his usual instincts) to move on to a colleague’s apartment to continue the party, things start to wrong – so wrong in fact that he misses taking out his last train the following morning. What follows is a kind of journey of discovery.
O’Horten is described in most reviews as a comedy and I guess it is a comedy of sorts. Philip French suggests that it refers to the US genre of ‘retirement comedies’, best represented for him by About Schmidt. I think that the film certainly makes use of generic comedy elements, but I also found it quite disturbing at times – in the sense that I wasn’t quite sure where it was going (which is a good thing). I do think that there is a tendency for reviewers to take a 67 year-old bachelor who moves slowly and thinks carefully before acting as obviously quaint or ‘whimsical’. But there are several scenes which deny this. What is clear is that a snowy and deserted Oslo is as much a character in the film as Odd himself. It is a city with rather austere buildings, rain and snow on the streets and trams clanging round the corner. For a stretch in the film we appear to enter the world of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson. We see Odd in a bar (called ‘Valkyries’!) which is a dead ringer for an Andersson bar, except with less clientele but with a wonderfully morose waiter in a white coat that took me back 40 years to the pubs of my youth. There is a considered ‘old-fashionedness’ to much of the mise en scène, including Odd’s attachment to his pipe. A man at the urinal stall warns Odd that freezing rain is forecast very soon and we cut to Odd outside, clinging to a lamp-post as pedestrians and a motorcyclist slide down the hill on the ice. This blog refers to Hamer/Andersson’s approach as ‘European absurd realism’ which is quite neat.
The Andersson reference raises the question I hesitate to enunciate: is this what the international art film market (i.e. in North America) thinks a ‘Nordic/Scandinavian’ film must be like? I have to confess that it does conform to a kind of serio-comedy model and it includes, besides the fascination with trains, a central role for ski-jumping. My concern of course is that typing films in this way may get in the way of a broader understanding of Norwegian genre films like The Troll Hunter. Nevertheless, I enjoyed O’Horten and kudos for Channel 4 in screening it even if it was on at 01.45 am!