You can usually find stylistic similarities between any given director without breaking much of a sweat. Usually. With Roy Andersson, though, the usual might be a big ask. Which is perfectly fitting when it comes to the Swedish arthouse maestro, a director who’s made a career out of inflating the usual into the grandiose. This week sees the stateside theatrical release of his latest opus “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence.” The third and final part of a “trilogy about being a human being,” ‘Pigeon’ continues Andersson’s signature vignette-like style of composing tiny universes within each scene, fixating the camera in specifically-angled corners and not moving it an inch, and never interrupting a given scene (which can last up to and over 10 minutes) with cuts. Among the film’s comically colorless characters are two salesmen peddling novelty items, a Flamenco dancer with a bittersweet crush on one of her students, and a banal moment in the life of Swedish king Charles XII.
The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, where the Playlist’s Jessica Kiang likened the experience to a “cinephile Christmas” in her A- review. Going by that analogy, when I telephoned Andersson to talk about ‘Pigeon,’ he came off as a boisterous Santa Claus, eager to discuss his ambitions with ‘Pigeon,’ the trilogy as a whole, and his artistic inspirations and influences. Those in New York City can enjoy a retrospective of every film Andersson has directed (including shorts) currently screening at Museum of Arts and Design, while ‘Pigeon’ gets limited NYC release on June 3rd before expanding further.
What do you feel “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence” adds to the experience of the human condition so far presented in your previous two films, “Songs From The Second Room” (2000) and “You, The Living” (2007)?
It’s huge stuff. My ambition is to make a very huge spectrum of the existence of being a human being on this planet. My main source of inspiration is art history. I relate [‘Pigeon’] to the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. He painted his paintings about existence, and I think he was 80 years old when he died. And he told us about his view of existence throughout all those years —sometimes very sad and hopeless, sometimes very hopeful, sometimes very grotesque and cruel, and so on. But above all he was all about humanism, and he believed, as I see it also, that art should always be at the service of humanism.
I believe the title of the film came from the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder?
It did. But to be honest, Bruegel painted crowds in the street, and I changed [the focus and perspective] to pigeons instead. One day, I was sitting in the south of Sweden trying to write my script, and I had problems. Outside of the window, at the same level where I sat, there was a tree, there was a branch and there was a pigeon. And I thought, “maybe this pigeon has the same problem as me?” Namely, thinking about existence. [laughs]
When you worked on ‘Songs’ over 15 years ago, did you know there was going to be two more installments, or was that something that came along throughout the years?
It’s something that came along. I think it’s the same for every trilogy in literature and movies and so on. I think it always comes along, or at least it was so for me.
And what are your thoughts now, as you look back over the 15 years, on all three films as a trilogy?
Really, I just noticed something now that’s so good for me. That now when we have a trilogy, the interest for the trilogy and the separate movies within it also increases. And so now the whole world wants to know about the trilogy, but it wouldn’t have happened this way if it wouldn’t have been a trilogy. So it’s very interesting. There’s something magic about the figure three —in Sweden, we call it the epic three number, you have the number three and the number seven. For example, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” [laughs]. Number three and number seven are epic, and there’s something mysterious and something respectful about number three. so that’s why I think a trilogy evokes more respect than single movies.
I find it fascinating that it’s called “The Living Trilogy,” yet there is an overwhelming and very comical sense of staging and construction in each scene, such as your signature style of the motionless camera and long takes, the ghost-like make up of the actors, etc. Why did you choose this particular style to present human interaction and life?
I started my film career after film school with a very realistic style. I was inspired by the so-called Italian neorealism in the ’40s and after WWII. Vittoria De Sica was absolutely one of my favorites, and his movie “The Bicycle Thieves” is still a masterpiece. It’s very realistic, and I tried to make [my work] as good as he did for 15 years, with commercials and shorts and features. I was close to giving up, thinking I needed to find another job, as an engineer or author. However, suddenly overnight I found that I could dare to leave the realism and go over to what I call abstracted style, inspired by art history, instead.
I grew up in a very typical working family in Gothenburg, Sweden, in which abstract art was something strange and only realism was accepted, so that’s why I hesitated for so long to go over to that abstracted style. I was inspired by European art after the realism; symbolism, expressionism and absurdism. In the United States, you have Edward Hopper. I think he’s not a realist: his paintings are so purified and condescended. He has inspired me a lot as well.
In one of the more poignant scenes in ‘Pigeon,’ a little girl recites a poem and evokes the title of the film. One can make a direct connection that the “existence” the pigeon is reflecting on has to do with money or lack of money. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yes. This scene is with a little girl who’s got down syndrome. I met these children in another project, and I was so fascinated and touched by their honesty and seriousness. I let this young girl quote a poem that she had written herself about a pigeon. Of course, she doesn’t have any philosophical ambitions —she was just occupied by the fact that this pigeon sat on a branch and had no money. [laughs]
So the idea came from the little girl?
That’s brilliant. There is a meticulous balance of the beautiful and sad in almost every scene: it’s almost as if they are one and the same in your film. Does every beautiful thing in our life have some degree of sadness to it?
Of course. It’s two sides of the same coin. Just to go back to Edward Hopper —his paintings are very beautiful but there is so much loneliness in them. There’s so much sadness and tragedy in them, while at the same time they are very, very beautiful.
I believe another one of your inspirations, Samuel Beckett, had that balance as well. There’s a line from one his plays, that goes something like “the funniest thing is unhappiness.”
[laughs] Yes, I think he said “sorrow is fun” or something like that. Beckett was a big fan of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. And I grew up with them also. When I was very young, on Sundays we would go to cinema, and we saw a lot of Laurel and Hardy, and I felt them to be so sad. It was a sorrow, but they were so comic at the same time. It’s a strange mixture.
It’s a sort of melancholic sort of mixture, isn’t it?
Yes! Their ambition is to climb the social ladder, but they fail all the time.
You also play with history in your film —for example the Charles XII scene, and then later with the scene of people forced into a copper cylinder. Both are extremely powerful in very different ways. Can you talk about the significance of playing with history and historical figures in this surreal kind of way?
As I said before, I saw the richness in dreams and fantasies when I dared to leave realism behind. In dreams, you’re totally free. And through that, I felt it was possible to play with anachronism. So these are typical scenes of anachronism to mix and to talk about existence in a very grotesque mixture of nowadays and yesterday.
A mix of past and present, and dreams and reality..
Right. Because the past is so involved in our daily life here in Sweden. We have these idols, this king, that made Sweden big and strong. So it’s Swedish dreams of power mixed with very banal and trivial situations in a cafe in a suburb in Stockholm.
It brings it down to earth a bit.
They are passing this bar while they are trying to conquer Russia. [laughs]
One of the ongoing debates in the film world today concerns shooting film vs. shooting digital. Where do you stand as such, and do you believe the growing shift to digital has helped more than hurt your unique style?
I am so happy with this change! So happy! I was a little suspicious at first, because when I made ‘Songs,’ we tried to make it digitally, but the quality was so bad. So I stopped. But with this movie, I see the advantages of the digital technique to be fantastic. I’m so happy with this. For me, analogue shooting is the stone age.
‘Pigeon’ is your first full-feature in digital, then.
Yes, but I’ve made some commercials before on digital to make sure it’s going to work. That’s how I [transitioned from] digital to analogue.
You’ve mentioned some artistic influences from the movie world earlier, like the Italian neorealists and Vittorio De Sica, but you have often also been compared to Jacques Tati. Are you a fan?
Oh yes! Tati is one of my favorites, especially “Playtime.” There’s this one sequence in that movie that I believe to be one of the most humorous in film history; they’re working in the kitchen and the staff is working very hard, and the boss in the kitchen notices the level of the sherry bottle is declining. And he’s very interested to know who the thief is. [laughs] Do you remember?
Yes, it’s coming back to me now. [laughs]
He soots the top of the bottle, and then later you see the headwaiter with the black ring around his mouth [bursts out laughing]. It’s fantastic, and so humorous.
What are your thoughts on contemporary movies? You strike me as someone who doesn’t bother too much with contemporary films, but please correct me if I’m wrong.
Of course I like some contemporary movies, but there is something we lack nowadays, and I’m not sure what that’s about exactly. I’m not sure if I’m just nostalgic, romantic, or not, but of course there are great scenes nowadays as well.
Are there any contemporary directors who grab your attention?
In the United States you have many good directors. The latest I saw was [Alejandro] González Iñárritu…
Oh, Iñárritu’s “Birdman?”
Yes, he won the Oscar. That’s very good. He’s moving the camera all the time, but I have my camera fixed all the time. I respect the moving camera in his movies, and he respects my static camera in my movies.
He’s presenting your film in the States along with Darren Aronofsky.
I’m very honored.
What about the future? Are you giving yourself a break or are you working on a new movie soon?
I already started planning the new movie.
Can you tell us anything about it?
Yeah, I’m working on the script now. We’ll be having some test shooting after the summer break, and I can reveal the title. It’s called “One Thousand and One Nights” from the Persian fairy tale history. You call them Arabian Nights, but in Sweden we call it One Thousand and One Nights. It’s about endlessness. About the inexhaustible. In life, in existence. The relation between people.
And it will have that mix of the fantastic and the real, I imagine?
Yes, and I will increase the tension between the huge and the trivial.
“A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence” opens on June 3 in New York City.