A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence wins Golden Lion in Venice

By Moira Sullivan

Typical Roy Andersson mis en scène

The big news from the "Venice Film Festival" that ended on September 6 is that Sweden’s best arthouse filmmaker after the late Ingmar Bergman, Roy Andersson  won the Golden Lion for his film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. It comprises 39 separate but thematically connected sketches on two traveling salesmen and  is part of a trilogy of films that began with  his grand prize at Cannes in 2000 (Songs from the Second Floor). After that Andersson was hard at work again crafting a by now clearly recognizable product as far as form and content is concerned. “You, the living” (2008) was made seven years after his Cannes award and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence completes the trilogy.

Andersson’s work is so completely different from anything that directors in Sweden are producing today that he is comfortably in a class of his own. His feature films follow the same visual style since 1991 with his film entitled Härlig är Jorden , "World of Glory", a cynical slice of Stockholm life, a series of handcrafted vignettes with carefully composed mis en scène and artfully arranged slices of life. The scenes are filmed in medium or long shots, with no close-ups, and virtually no camera movement. The color of the interiors - Swedish apartments, offices or pubs recreated in Andersson’s Studio 24 in Stockholm is always “nausea green”, a little like the green tint in "Soylent Green" from the 1970s.  

There is a frosty chill to these interiors with a decadent fuzzy color stock superimposed on decrepit and deteriorating facades. These interiors could be filmed anywhere in Europe and they often look like East Berlin before the wall came down but they are made in Stockholm.

Today Stockholm is one of Europe’s most elegant and beautiful cities, but in the suburbs of Roy Andersson’s concern, time stands still with ugly brownstones and high rises from the 1960’s. Most of the inhabitants have sparsely furnished dwellings. They are sub-basic and on the verge of spiritual decline as far as utility. The interiors most certainly seem to match the mentality of the characters.

The idea of a series of side-by-side visual vignettes evolved out of Roy Andersson’s career as a commercial filmmaker. His three latest films represent a personal artistic renaissance after years of making commercials and a return to features.

 The archetypal Swede is the central character in an Andersson film,  sometimes referred to as a  “zombie”, an unattractive stereotypical label awarded because of lulls in conversation, sparse functional language, a shyness for helping others and showing compassion when someone has misfortune, and a general lack of warmth and emotion. There is also a ritualized reverence to protocol and a generational and dutiful transmission of the moral codes of the culture. Andersson’s commercials are often good-natured digs at the conventions of Swedish society.

Andersson’s Sweden is reminiscent of the late cold war or an impending catastrophe. A static group pose is present in almost every Andersson vignette:  people standing in line for a bus, sitting in a bar or waiting for an elevator. No one small talks with their neighbor because they don’t really know them even if they have seen each other for years.  These generic qualities have perhaps given Andersson the distinction of making universal films with universal themes. But his films rightly so are particularly Swedish. More than anything there is a sense of impending doom which makes Roy Andersson a unique and cathartic art house director. His latest edition

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" was inspired by a Bruegel painting with a birds eye view entitled "Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Birdtrap".

© 2014 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 09/10/14
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