A look into the universe of Roy Andersson
When I did a list of 10 Swedish movies I recommend, I got a few mixed reactions about the absence of Roy Andersson. Some thought that I had overlooked one of the best Swedish directors we have right now. Others complimented me for not including him.
But my non-inclusion of Roy Andersson had very little to do with lack of appreciation of his movies. The simple truth is that I haven’t watched many of them.
I had a vague reminiscence of having watched and liked his feature film debut A Swedish Love Story from 1970, but my recollections were so vague that I would be completely unable to say anything meaningful about it. I hadn’t watched Giliap. I hadn’t watched Songs From the Second Floor. And I hadn’t watched You, the Living, until last Thursday when I watched it at my local film club, and that was too late for it to qualify for that list.
Roy Andersson has been a glaring gap in my Swedish cinematic education, I admit it. But I’m getting into it and you could consider this post my first effort to explore his universe, starting with the films I just watched.
We’ll begin in a different corner though. Weird as it may sound, to me Roy Andersson more than anything else is the director of brilliant commercial films. That’s how I understand that he’s mostly made his living and over the years I’ve watched tons of them. The films have promoted various products and companies, ranging from insurances and gambling to political parties. But they’re all made in the special, distinctive style that puts Roy Andersson apart from any other film maker.
The palette is grey, the humans look pale and miserable, but there’s also something touching about them. The settings are artfully put together, as a painting or installation. Take a bit of Terry Gilliam and drench it in Swedish Melancholy and drudgery and I think you might get the idea. The Roy Andersson universe is always the same, either he’s making a commercial or a non-commercial film. It’s the same particular mix of misery and humour.
You may wonder if those ad films ever did what they were intended to for. Did they in any way increase the sales? Did people vote for the Social democratic party because of his films? I have no idea. I doubt it. Regardless, they were really fun to watch and that’s what matters to me. And I think I’m not the only one. Search for Roy Andersson’s commercials at YouTube and you’ll find loads of them, in a few cases even with English translations. Check out this one for instance.
You, the Living
But enough of talking about commercials! What did I make of You, the Living?
Well, to begin with, this film is a little bit hard to describe. It hasn’t got a traditional narrative or plot. There’s not one particular protagonist to follow, not one storyline to engage with.
IMDb puts it like this: “You, the Living is a film about humankind, its greatness and its baseness, joy and sorrow, its self-confidence and anxiety, its desire to love and be loved.”
Is everything clear now? Not? Well, you could also say that it consists of a number of scenes, some of them loosely connected, featuring the same characters, others more of stand-alones. I find a lot of them humorous – not-laughing-out-loud-funny, but enough to provoke an internal smile once in a while.
Did I enjoy it? Yes, quite a bit. As you probably hear between the lines there is a little reservation in my voice though. I like it, I admire it and I’m glad that there is a director with such a unique voice and vision as Roy Andersson. He’s an artist, he’s making “his thing” and he’s doing it well. But I can also see why it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. With the lack of a coherent story and the understated acting, where the actors rather are reading some lines than performing them, I think it’s a case of an acquired taste. I like to eat blue cheese once in a while, but I’d be a fool to hand it out and recommend it left and right and it’s not the base in my diet. It’s something that I can enjoy in small portions. And that’s probably why Roy Andersson’s commercials worked so well. You never got more than a little at a time.
Something that enhanced my watching of You, the Living and made me appreciate it a lot more than I might have done otherwise was that my film club had decided to make it a double. Before showing the main movie, they showed another film, Tomorrow’s Another Day, which is a film about the making of it.
This isn’t the usual 25 minutes “behind the scenes” with pictures from the movie accompanied by statements about how awesome the film is. On the contrary, it’s a real, full length documentary about the making of the film. You get to see every part in the process, get to see how Roy Andersson works and interacts with the rest of the team, learn about his vision of film making and above all about the craft it involves.
I was particularly intrigued by how much of the movie that was shot in a studio and how much of carpentry it involved. The trams and trains we see haven’t been near a real railway station. Everything is faked. When they want to make a backyard environment look bigger than the studio size admits, they use methods to trick the eye that have been used since the childhood of filmmaking. A shot showing the ground seemingly taken from an airplane turns out to be a studio creation with a model.
Another highpoint of the film is when we follow Roy Andersson on a trip to Germany to meet potential financers. It’s a side of film making that we who aren’t in the business don’t think very much about.
The documentary is brand new and was shown at the most recent film festival in Gothenburg and now at my local film club (with an audience of eleven, which was a shame.) I don’t know if there’s any international distribution planned, but if nothing else it appears as if you can buy a copy with English subtitles for a reasonable sum directly from the production company. If you ask me I enjoyed the documentary about the making of You, the Living just as much as I enjoyed the movie itself (if not more).
We’ve reached the end of my first look into the world of Roy Andersson. I can’t claim I’m any expert, but I hope you enjoyed it. And I wouldn’t rule out that I’ll get back to him again in the future, if nothing else when he’s next movie comes out, which currently is set to be in 2014. It’s got the intriguing title A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.
If you haven’t had enough of Roy Andersson after this, I would recommend you to read this interview at the digital magazine Notebook, which I stumbled upon as I was looking for a screenshot to use for this post. It’s really an interesting read, where he talks a lot how he’s been influenced by artists and other film makers.
You, the Living (Du levande, Roy Andersson, SWE 2007) My rating: 4/5
Tomorrow’s Another Day (Det är en dag i morgon också, Johan Carlsson, SWE 2011) My rating: 4/5