By Tara Judah
I don’t speak Swedish or Dutch. Nevertheless, I saw Roy Andersson’s, En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (2014), a Swedish language film, with Dutch subtitles, at IFFR.
Though I am sure the dialogue is filled with nuanced witticisms – Andersson is known for his deadpan humor – every frame is a carefully composed artwork. His painterly compositions are captivating and, after some early frustration at my compulsion to read the subtitles I couldn’t understand, I found it liberating to exclude language from the experience. I looked more pointedly at the images and I noticed things I think I would have missed, on a first viewing, at least.
The studious attention to detail in Andersson’s mise-en-scène is breathtaking: various shades of white and cream used as painterly makeup on characters’ faces match or highlight specific items or elements within the frame. A simple example is from an early scene where a man suffers a heart attack when trying to open a bottle of wine. His partner is in the kitchen preparing dinner. We can see her but she remains oblivious to the event, even after he has fallen to the floor with a thud. His face is cream and matches, almost exactly, with the tablecloth and napkins at the dinner table, and the window frame we can see in the background, as well as his shirt, and the skirting boards in the room – the very same skirting boards that define the space he is contained by. That is to say that the cream in this scene frames him, then highlights him as the object that our eyes should be drawn to and, as the scenario that kills him, simultaneously takes a jibe at the performance of domesticity. Everything needed to enjoy and understand this particular moment is communicated through the film’s visual language.
There is also a bar that we return to, time and again, throughout the film. It is the setting for the past as well as the present – though when exactly it is that this film takes place is never fully declared. Strange as it is, presenting a hyper-real landscape, the ‘where’ of this film is similarly irrelevant. What that creates is a heavily satirical style of social realism. In each of the bar scenes, depending on the ‘when’ and the ‘who’ that are being presented, the angle shifts. At first we see the room from straight on, but slightly to the left of what would be symmetrical. As such, there is a large pillar just off center and to the right. The eye naturally and automatically goes to the left of the pillar – this is where the bar is, and also where the front door to the bar is positioned (and with that the entrance/exit for any potential characters). But Andersson puts the action on the right of the pillar. Later, as the camera shifts position and after we have been trained to look to the right, he composes a symmetrical shot and puts the action on the left. Constantly shifting his focus, and altering our expectations in this way – subtle though they may be – Andersson further highlights the absurdity of everyday life. Our expectations, no matter what they are, are foolish. Nothing is steadfast.
Life is full of spontaneous nonsense; it is characterized by brutish wars, incensing structures, empty spaces and disappointing people.
Just beyond our view there is always a window or a door to something else: we never see anything absolutely as it is and the small idiosyncrasies of everyday life are endlessly infuriating and unfulfilling. But, at least, if we contemplate them through Andersson’s de-saturated color palette, stark interiors, deadpan caricatures and acerbic wit, then perhaps we can see comedy in the tragedy that comes with reflecting on existence.
Director: Roy Andersson
Scenario: Roy Andersson
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson, Viktor Gyllenberg
Photography: István Borbás, Gergely Pálos
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
Production design: Ulf Jonsson, Julia Tegström, Nicklas Nilsson, Sandra Parment, Isabel Sjöstrand
Sound design: Robert Hefter
Length: 101 minutes