Before beginning, I'd like to make it clear that the director (Roy Andersson) intends this as the second part of a trilogy, with the equally eye-popping Songs from the Second Floor, as the first installment. Second, I don't consider this film to be a comedy, not even a black comedy. I mention this because, if you are expecting a comedy, don't. If this is funny at all, it's a peculiar kind (see below). The "Monty Python" bit from the cover is totally misleading, even if one considers the absurdist side of Python. This is a much colder thing than Python would ever undertake.
And now for something completely different ...
Is this a disc that needs to be owned, or will renting it be sufficient? The quality of the picture is not the best viewed close up, losing some of the crispness of the director's details, while the soundtrack makes no special demands on the Dolby 5.1. Extras include a full-length commentary by the director, which I've chosen not to listen to after hearing his commentary for Songs from the Second Floor, a director interview, two "making of" features, and a selection of clips from the director's previous four movies. In all these are approximately an hour. If you've seen Songs from the Second Floor, these extras are almost a formulaic repetition as for that film. So in brief, if you like to show off Andersson films to friends, you might want to own this, or, you might be like me, and just rent it again. Now the movie itself.
Roy Andersson has made most of his career in TV commercials--often quirky ones--and that approach is his style here, writ large. Everything you see was filmed on a sound stage and was built from scratch. Everything is meticulously placed, and almost nothing ever goes to waste visually. Because the camera never moves (except on very, very rare occasions), it gives a viewer plenty of time to check out the space, to appreciate the depths of each shot, to admire the colors, to notice things you might not notice if the camera was moving. Aesthetically (and thus, as a film experience) it's virtually unrivaled and a real treat.
But also, I think Roy Andersson has ripped a bitter page out of Bergman--I've heard his work described as Bergman meets Gilliam--this is not accurate. So you know, this film consists of fifty scenes or so, all barely over a minute. Sometimes they connect together in a sequence, and there are recurring figures, but the idea of a plot per se is so attenuated that it feels like there isn't one. Even though the film is fairly short, I found myself becoming antsy about when the ending would be--not because I wanted it to be over, but just because I lost the thread of significance that was holding the scenes together.
I first saw this movie at a festival with lots of people and a panel of talking heads afterward. One of the main things that kept coming up was how the movie was generally funny (the introducer said this was the only comedy that could legitimately follow Pink Floyd's The Wall), but that at some point there would be an image or a scene of such pathos that it caught different viewers wholly off-guard.
I will go out on a limb and say that the movie derives it's humor at the expense of those filmed. For instance, a fat, dumpy man takes a huge bouquet of flowers to a woman's house, and she slams the door in his face, catching the flowers in the door. An odd, striking moment that might well make one laugh--because one is otherwise at a loss what to feel. But then later, we see the ugly, dumpy little man again (cast by Andersson because he is pathetic, dumpy, and ugly) suddenly giving out these restrained half-sobs of rejection. Funny?
WARNING: This paragraph has spoilers (although there's not really a plot to spoil.) At the very least, one can accuse Andersson of setting up his viewers. If we laugh because the imagery startles us, either Andersson is laughing abusively with us, or he's looking down his nose in general. The film opens with a man starting awake and announcing that he had a nightmare about bombers flying over the city. In the closing sequence of the film, everything stops in the city as people look up, as if expecting something beatific. Cut to bombers, and the clear implication that the city is going to be destroyed. After all that everyone has been through in the film, they will be obliterated by bombers. That's Andersson's vision.
In other words, I don't find that this is a comedy, not even a black comedy. It is a film about Schadenfreude, that marvelously astute German word, "joy at the suffering of others." For many, their lives are so crushed by the rat race, the struggle to survive, the grim realities of modern Western life, that seeing others suffer may seem funny, or at least cathartic. I don't know if Andersson means to accuse us (Those, the living) for laughing, or if he is laughing along with us. And I think as well that his Schadenfreude is undermined by the very fact of making a movie. That he would undertake to make a movie at all is a gesture to overcome the misery of the human condition, to answer Bergman's and Kirkegaard's relentless grimness, which was similarly transcended by film and philosophy, respectively.
In other words, if it was really as hopeless as Andersson wants us to believe, then he wouldn't have made the film at all. In a sense, he is the anti-Fellini. Fellini depicted the parade of human faces, but he did so affectionately or at least with fascination. Andersson is much more judgmental about it. But while this is thoroughly obnoxious, the visionary quality of his films overcomes this. It's as if I really enjoy watching him do what he does, but I'm not too appreciative of what he has to say along the way. This was very true of the completely trite commentary he had for Songs from the Second Floor; it was as if he didn't understand his own movie. Or did I not? A. O. Scott says that the movie is "a deadpan but nonetheless heartfelt affirmation of human existence, which may be fragile and pointless but is still worth something." Heartfelt? I think absolutely not. I would say this can be read out of the film from the overly sentimental (compensatory) attention paid to a lovelorn groupie, and to the obviously witty and farcical trial scene (which is a dream sequence). The movie is currently listed (as of 15 June 2010) as #12 on the Japanese horror Top 10, for goodness sake.
Anyway, enough of this. This film is astonishingly, strikingly visual. It has a capacity to visually surprise unequaled by any film I can think of (that aims for surprise) except Santa Sangre by Alejandro Jodoworsky. And doubtless, part of what I like about this film arises from the same embittered place that I also dislike about it, but I still highly recommend this.