Film Review: The Art of Being Frozen — Two Powerful Films from Roy Andersson

The overriding theme in Roy Andersson’s films is the conflict between human frailty and our delusions of control. We are helpless in a world that is so much greater than we can imagine.

Giliap and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Giliap screens on July 1. Pigeon on July 2.

A scene from ...

A scene from Roy Andersson’s “Giliap.”

By Paul Dervis


1975’s Giliap was the film that seemingly derailed Swedish director Roy Andersson‘s career. It went wildly over budget, and was neither a critical nor commercial success. It would be twenty-five years before he made another full-length feature.

But, in retrospect, it is his most innovative and gripping piece.

One of Andersson’s aesthetic trademarks is his abandonment of exposition. He resolutely refuses to give any background information about his characters. For example, in Giliap, his male lead is never even given a name. Ironically, the upshot is a compelling blend of stark realism and impish playfulness, unpredictability alternating with inevitability. The viewer is forced to accept the role of puzzled voyeur, spying on the lives of broken people. It is both an embarrassing and intoxicating experience.

In Giliap, the camera takes us down a narrow, winding street, where it stops in front of an old hotel as a man, maybe crazy, maybe drunk, is tossed out the front door. The atmosphere of foreboding has just begun to thicken.

We go inside the small, rococo lobby, with an outdated, formerly elegant eatery to the side. Inside the restaurant, we watch the wheelchair bound proprietor dress down the three-piece band for not playing, even though there are no customers in the room. Staff members are setting up for a funeral reception; the owner lashes out at them for being too liberal with the flower arrangements. Clearly, this restaurant does not provide the means to make much of a living.

Into this scene walks our protagonist, a new employee. He is young, handsome, and mysterious. The staff is suspicious. Is he around just until he can latch on to one of the merchant ships that pass through this port city? Or is he here  to stay? Some saw their jobs at the restaurant  as something that they would just ‘pass through’ on the way to building better lives…. many have now put in decades at the place because they became trapped in its inertia.

Anna is one of those workers, inert while dreaming of something, anything that will lift her out of the depths.

She throws herself at the young stranger, hoping that his energy can carry her away. But he rejects her advances (at least initially). She would only divert him from what he sees as his destiny. Anna has had a long term, depressing affair with a kitchen worker who goes by the handle of The Count. He is a bad man, or at least that’s how he presents himself. He is also the established leader of this rag-tag crew. The Count likes to wallow in the lower depths of the city, its strip joints and back alleys. And he likes to bring others with him to cruise along the bottom.

And The Count has a plan. It involves a few others, including our young lead. And, of course, his scheme goes badly.

I won’t say more, because the ending does not follow the predictable Hollywood script. It is both fast and furious …and breathtaking.

Andersson is ladling out liberal doses of film noir here, but unlike the typical example of the form the plot does not stick to racy externalities — he is constantly exploring his characters’ motives and fantasies. Yes, he creates a dark and shadowy world, a staple of the genre. But at the end he breaks this bleakness up, visually,  with blinding light and openness.

Andersson, who also wrote the screenplay, masterfully controls plot and characters; they appear to be puppets, pulled hither and yon by  his nimble fingers. And his complicated vision is realized by an able cast.

The nameless young man, who The Count refers to as Giliap, is played by Tommy Berggren with a sadness that is palpable. Mona Seilitz’s Anna exudes a none-too-quiet sense of desperation. And Willie Andreason, as The Count, is so full of bombast that it becomes crystal clear that he drips with self loathing.

As in so many of Andersson’s films, the overriding theme is the conflict between human frailty and our delusions of control. We are helpless in a world that is so much greater than we can imagine. He looks at our comic haplessness with a deep compassion.

What more can we ask for?

A scene from

A scene from Roy Andersson’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Andersson’s latest offering (2014) is not for the faint of heart. It is a comedy in that it is as dark and ironic about existence as anything Jonathan Swift could whip up. Taking the form of a series of vignettes, the storyline, if one could call it that, follows a pair of astonishingly bad travelling salesmen as they attempt to sell shopworn novelties to apathetic customers.

But, then again, this film (which won the Golden Lion award in the 2014 Venice Film Festival) is not about telling a story …it’s a rumination on the sad precariousness of the human condition.

And, just in case the viewer needs to be told that the movie is about the whimsy of mortality, Andersson starts off with three brusque vignettes on death…all as humorous as they are depressing. A middle-aged man attempts to open up a bottle of wine. The task proves too difficult for this portly gentleman, and he is felled by a heart attack, slowly succumbing to oblivion while his wife, her back to him as she washes the dishes, cheerily goes about her business, blissfully unaware of his demise.

An elderly women, on her deathbed, is surrounded by her offspring. In her hands she clutches a bag filled with her jewellery and other valuables. Hearing what he believes to be her last breath, her son tries to snatch the bag, but she will have none of it. Mom plans to take it with her.

A man collapses and dies standing in line at a cafeteria. He is gone….but he already paid for his meal. The cashier offers it, free of charge, to any customer who will take it. After a pregnant pause, an older man gets up from his seat and takes the chow.

You get the point. Chuckles and despair.

When young, Andersson was hailed as the shining young light of the Swedish film landscape. But after a box office and critical disaster in the mid-’70s (Giliap) he didn’t make another feature film for over two decades.  No doubt rejection of this kind would embitter an artist, and bitterness plays a role in this film. Yet it doesn’t feel as if his animosity is personal. Instead, Andersson’s disdain comes off as a means of understanding human limitations, as if he wants to commiserate with us over our lost dreams. He appreciates, with bittersweet chagrin, our off-kilter lives. In one scene, we see an aged man in a tavern reflecting on his time in that same pub during World War II. He remembers being served by a lame waitress who would trade ale for love. In this episode, Andersson dovetails the anguish of missed opportunities with tenderness and sadness. We are touched deeply by his characters, who are frozen in time.

Frozen is an accurate description of this film. In so many of the scenes the characters barely move. It is as if inertia has overtaken them. Bizarre events pop up all around them, but they can only stop and stare. Imagine Monty Python routines choreographed by the Grim Reaper.

When I read the great Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s novel Barney’s Version, I did not know that the author was dying, but it was clear that this would be his last book. Pigeon … exudes the same intimations of finality. It feels as if Andersson, now 72, is bidding farewell to his art and audience. Maybe I am wrong, but if not, then this moving work of art is an appropriate tragicomic capstone to a complex and impressive oeuvre.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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