Tuesday 13 October 2020

King Roy: "Being a Human Person"

The writer-director Roy Andersson came late to non-Swedish cinemagoers. His international breakthrough was 2000's Songs from the Second Floor, a mordant, intricately choreographed series of tableaux from what looked like the end of the world; when that stunned critics and audiences, he was already closing in on sixty, and entering his fourth decade of leftfield imagemaking. The advantage is that he arrived fully formed: as his 2007's You, the Living and 2014's A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence subsequently underlined, here was a Bergman with sight gags, an auteur with both a deep insight into the human condition and the desire to laugh it off. The new doc Being a Human Person, directed by Fred Scott for the reliable Archer's Mark shingle (Next Goal Wins), joins the stout, jolly Andersson - in his youth, a dead ringer for Joel Edgerton; now resembling an appreciably lived-in Wimpy from the old Popeye cartoons - in the three-tiered townhouse on a busy Stockholm thoroughfare that has served as his studio and home since 1981, as he rides Pigeon's success and begins work on what the now 77-year-old director announced would be his final film, About Endlessness. (This would win him the Best Director gong at last year's Venice festival; it opens in the UK imminently.) 
Scott's film is a making-of, then, but it's also one of those superior making-ofs - like 2013's Michael H. Profession: Director, Yves Montmayeur's portrait of mid-Amour Michael Haneke - which allows us to pass through a portal and enter a filmmaker's inner sanctum, to see just how a very distinctive worldview is serviced and maintained. Among Studio 24's clutter of books, props and maquettes, we meet a small army of able and willing craftspeople, who've helped Andersson realise the full gamut of human experiences, from joy to suffering (mostly suffering); who've staged everything from a contemporary crucifixion to the first snowfall of winter; who've filled these frames with the lowliest of salarymen and mounted King's men. From the off, Scott's doc circles one reason any given Andersson film is so rich: he's got the whole world in his house.

Could that be why the camera frequently observes Andersson two doors down, drinking the first of the day's many long draughts at a neighbouring bar? Here, Being a Human Person introduces a genuinely unexpected note of drama: those once-busy assistants start confessing to fears that Andersson's elevated alcohol consumption is set to bring this production, this career and their own livelihoods to a premature end, sadder than anything the director himself has previously envisioned for the screen. As the film's subject wobbles in and out of rehab, Scott's film never dodges the issue. Pinned down for one of their fond, typically thoughtful conversations, Andersson admits to Scott that his drinking is "a way of avoiding being bored". A biographical strand, useful for newcomers, suggests this entire career has been a considered retreat from the overnight success of the director's third film, 1970's A Swedish Love Story: a sunkissed teen romance that was broadly as conventional as its title insinuated, and which conferred a celebrity on Andersson that he was neither expecting nor comfortable with. 1975's darker-shaded "Giliap" was Andersson beginning to plough his own eccentric furrow - yet one of the dangers of creating your own reality, in your own front room (Andersson even shoots exteriors in the studio, with the aid of sophisticated green-screen and trompe l'oeil effects dissected in passing here), is that you wind up getting stuck in a rut. Is alcohol Andersson's means of escape? Or is it, as one assistant wonders, that he's been drinking to drag his feet - to put off the moment when he has to call cut for the final time? (Because: what then? Talk about looking into the void.) Either way, a fairly standard-looking directorial profile suddenly presents us with a prospect both intriguing and terrifying: that of watching Roy Andersson turning into one of his own pallid, downtrodden, helpless characters.

To some extent, at least. About Endlessness is long in the can, critically acclaimed and awaiting release, so we can rest assured that this creative and physical decline was only permitted to go so far. Though concerns about Andersson's constitution and blood alcohol float deep into the final reel, Being a Human Person ultimately reveals that the director was less helpless than he sometimes appeared mid-shoot. Here, Scott takes a note or two from Next Goal Wins, operating in direct contravention of auteurist philosophy: more so than most Andersson projects, About Endlessness looks to have been a team effort. Scott films that loyal army of artisans and acolytes pulling together in Andersson's absence to keep this production going, and then - once their employer returns, with the addition of a crutch to keep him upright - keep the filmmaker focused long enough to pull focus on the final scenes, and explain himself further under Scott's questioning. What becomes apparent is that everybody who passes through the door of Studio 24 brings something new and useful to Andersson's vision, from the pensioner who gives the director some idea of how he might fruitfully spend his retirement to the non-professional actor, brought here by the casting call Andersson sporadically tapes to his front window, who admits he couldn't make head nor tail of Pigeon, but nevertheless fortifies the new film with his portrayal of an unnecessarily aggressive dentist. Early on, one of Andersson's assistants states that seeing the brushstrokes in a painting "doesn't destroy the picture; it just makes it more rich, to see the process". Scott allows us to see Team Andersson's workings - some of it fraught and haphazard, some of it altogether more assured, much of it worthy of a Venice Best Director prize, currently on display at the pizza parlour over the road from Roy's place. In doing so, he's fashioned a tool for better understanding an oeuvre that, for all its singularity, and the sense it could only have been created by one man with a very specific worldview, is in fact democratic in a very Scandinavian way. If Andersson's characters look as though they've not long for their world, that's because none of us have long for this world - not even the man who created those characters, and worlds besides.

Being a Human Person opens in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, from Friday; About Endlessness opens on November 6. 

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