“For life is terribly deficient in form. Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people. There is a grotesque horror about its comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce.” – Oscar Wilde
Roy Andersson’s Living trilogy delivers a comprehensive examination of the human condition, which explores the humour and absurdity in life’s harshness and our societal norms, as well as saying a lot about the situations we create for ourselves.
With a background in producing adverts, Andersson’s skill for succinctly executing an idea, particularly in the Living trilogy, is clearly apparent; the three films are shot as vignettes and compliment Andersson’s humor perfectly. They are essentially presented as black comedies, although the surrealist style, coupled with the subtitles (the films are in Swedish, Andersson’s native tongue) makes for a challenging and unique viewing experience.
The trilogy opens with 2000’s, Songs from the Second Floor. We follow Kalle, a man experiencing a world on the edge of the 21st century, who has just burned down his furniture shop in order to claim insurance money. Kalle observes a city where religion, politics and the corporate world unashamedly show their ugly sides. Symbolism is used heavily throughout, however the film’s themes are explored more subtly in scenes featuring Kalle’s institutionalised son, Tomas, a poet who no longer speaks as he “wrote poems until he went nuts.” As with all the films in the Living trilogy, Andersson cites inspiration from poems and paintings, the affirmation used throughout Songs from the Second Floor being words taken from a César Vallejo poem “Beloved be the one who sits down.”
2007’s You, the Living continues with the same themes: Everyone is particularly dour, and all of the scenes are constructed from shots taken on a single wide-angle lens camera, the main focus this time being dreams, both in the abstract and aspirational sense. Music is used heavily as a reference point, and we’re presented with a host of characters, the most poignant story coming from a young woman who ends up meeting her hero, fictional guitarist Micke Larsson. A stanza from Goethe’s Roman Elegies opens the film and stays in your mind throughout, “Therefore rejoice, you, the living, in your lovely warm bed, until Lethe’s cold wave wets your fleeing foot.”
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, released in 2014, provides a satisfying end to the trilogy. The title is in reference to Pieter Bruegel’s painting, The Hunters in the Snow, which features birds on a branch watching over a winter hunting scene. Andersson said he imagined the birds looking down and wondering what was going on, which can be compared to the way in which he has shot the entire trilogy – As an audience we are invited to view these scenes from a fixed perspective and decipher what’s happening. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, as well as exploring the larger themes that are present throughout the trilogy, points out the absurdity of our worries and politeness. “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” is a phrase used consistently throughout the film by characters who are talking on the phone, which is juxtaposed with them being in settings and situations that are far less than desireable. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch ultimately asks the question of ‘what is it exactly we’re actually doing in life?’
The Living trilogy brings out the bizarre in the mundane and gives an honest examination of what it is to be human, all of our strengths and weaknesses exposed. The next time you find yourself in the midst of an existential crisis, don’t hesitate to explore what Roy Andersson has to offer.