No Shadows To Hide In: A Conversation with Roy Andersson
By Ethan Spigland
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 had it’s American premiere at the 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 sounds lugubrious, but the film is also 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 recent retrospective.
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Ethan Spigland: 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.
E.S.: What is it in painting that inspires you?
RA: 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.
ES: I can see the connection to Otto Dix; there’s almost something hyperreal about his images. What about your distinct use of color and light? Did that come from painting as well?
RA: 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.
ES: Yet, I never feel contempt for humanity in your films. There’s criticism, but also a sort of compassion.
RA: 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.
ES: Why do you prefer to construct sets as opposed to working in real locations? SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR and YOU THE LIVING were shot almost entirely in the studio.
RA: Because of control. . . the need for control. It allows me to attain the condensation that I mentioned. It’s easier and necessary for what I’m trying to do, but also it’s not more expensive. When you work on location, you have to clean the streets, repaint buildings, and paint signs—all which are very expensive.
ES: Chaplin once said that life is tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot. Your films are tragedies and comedies, tragicomedies, done in long shot.
RA: 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.
ES: In long shot you can also see the body and its gestures.
RA: Yes, but 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.
ES: There’s a sense of struggle in a room–with objects, gravity. . . Your films deal with human tragedies, so of course there’s something universal about them. However, at the same time, I perceive a critical and political dimension to them–something that’s perhaps specific to Sweden.
RA: I want to describe arbitrariness. Arbitrariness rules and makes people suffer. And I think that is true all over the world.
ES: For example, in YOU THE LIVING. . . I’m thinking of the scene in which the man does the tablecloth trick, and finds himself sentenced to death for destroying the antique china. I noticed there were swastikas in the pattern of the table. Is that a reference to Sweden’s role during the war? I know it’s a complex issue.
RA: Yes, there was collaboration with the Germans.
ES: So there are images like that, which are more specific to Swedish history or to the current social or political situation. I’m also thinking about some of the scenes that depict racism against immigrants.
RA: Sweden is not far from the rest of the world, so of course, when you are specific about Sweden you are also universal.
ES: How do you begin sketching out your tableaux? I know that you don’t write traditional screenplays.
RA: 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.” When a father says that about his son, it’s funny and very sad at the same time. 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.
ES: Do you do tests before the actual shooting begins?
RA: Yes, we do a lot of tests in 35mm.
ES: So you’re almost writing in film in a certain way.
RA: Yes, I use the tests as a typewriter.
ES: I don’t think there are many filmmakers working like that today. The French New Wave spoke about the camera-stylo–the camera as pen.
RA: It’s only possible because I have my own studio. Before that, when I was in the hands of other producers, it was impossible.
ES: I’m curious about the role of dreams in YOU THE LIVING. Where do the dreams in the film come from? Do images come to you from your own dreams?
RA: 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.
ES: However, in YOU THE LIVING the dreams are filmed in the same style as the other parts of the film. The so-called real parts are as dreamlike as the dreams; they are also filmed like dreams. For example, the scenes in the strange bar where it’s always closing time. . .
RA: Yes, you are right.
ES: Did the films of Jacques Tati inspire you?
RA: Yes, but not as much as people think. But, of course–especially PLAYTIME.
ES: His films, like yours, are inspired by everyday reality yet take place in a very stylized world. And it’s all very controlled. He built an entire city for PLAYTIME. You also build very elaborate sets, having even constructed a miniature city for SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR.
RA: Yes, at the end of SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, we built a city in trompe l’oel.
ES: You mean for the amazing shot where the people emerge from their graves. . .
ES: Getting back to dreams, one of the things I found amazing in YOU THE LIVING, is that the dreams capture the way dreams actually feel. For example, the pleasant dream of the moving bridal suite. . . It’s rare that movies capture the very texture of dreams.
RA: I hope so.
ES: The film begins with a man sleeping and having a nightmare about the approaching bombers. Then, at the end of the film, we see the bombers flying above the city. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the film, but 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?
RA: 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.
ES: In YOU THE LIVING there’s strong emphasis on music. It’s probably the closest you’ve come to actually directing a musical: characters occasionally burst into song; there’s a jazz band. And the rhythm of the film itself is musical in numerous ways. Can you say something about the role of music in the film?
RA: 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.
ES: You play trombone, right?
RA: Trombone, yes, and I’m happy to have introduced that kind of music in modern times—traditional jazz from New Orleans.
ES: It contrasts strikingly with the melancholy mood and bleak situations. I think you did some amazing things with sound in the film. One of my favorite scenes is the one in the practice room where the musicians are playing while a storm rages outside—the way they play along to the sounds of the rain and thunder.
RA: 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.
ES: Yet it captures something, something ineffable.
RA: And the drummer is carrying his bass drum in plastic to avoid getting it wet in the rain.
ES: Yes, it’s a wonderfully human moment. Your films avoid traditional narrative structure. In classic American cinema, one scene leads inexorably to the next in a very dramatic way. However, your films have a more open structure.
RA: Because 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.
ES: I also think that your style grants an audience more room to enter the film. 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.
RA: Unfortunately audiences are not used to that in our time.
ES: Many critics focus on the compositions and the visual elements of your films, but I think the way time unfolds in them is also very fascinating. There’s very little physical action, but time itself becomes tangible.
RA: Yes, for example, the scene we spoke about with the musicians rehearsing–that’s a scene about time.
ES: In his books on cinema, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes what he calls the “time-image.” He discusses the crisis of action and movement in modern cinema—how it becomes more about an experience of time itself.
Can you say something about your next project?
RA: 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.
ES: I like it.
RA: 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.
ES: You want to push everything a bit further?
RA: Yes, I want to be more expressive. Anyway, I will try.
[Note: A version of this interview previously appeared in The Brooklyn Rail]