The TV commercials of Swedish surrealist Roy Andersson
Swedish director Roy Andersson has completed just five features in a career that began in the late 1960’s. To say that he is a slow and methodical perfectionist is putting it mildly. What’s more, three of these have appeared since the turn of the millennium: Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, The Living (2007) and his latest, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which variously delighting and perplexing UK cinema audiences in 2015.
And yet Andersson is actually extraordinarily prolific in another field: TV advertising. During the quarter century hiatus between 1975’s Giliap and Songs from the Second Floor, Andersson directed over 400 brilliantly conceived commercials for a variety of products and brands, including Citroën and Air France, winning the admiration of fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman as well as a hatful of awards in the process.
A selection of Andersson’s commercials are available as extras on Artificial Eye’s retrospective box set of his work, it’s fascinating to revisit these 30 second vignettes. Many are mini comic gems and almost all reveal the gradual but clear evolution of Andersson’s blackly comic vision and ultra-deadpan style, as witnessed in his “trilogy about being a human being”, of which A Pigeon Sat on a Branch… serves as the final installment.
From his earliest commercial work for insurer Trygg Hansa, in which elaborate and unlikely accidents occur to demonstrate the company’s ominous philosophy, “Sooner or later you’ll need insurance”, Andersson’s familiar static camera is already in place. Action disrupts the stillness of his scene only when necessary - and even then reluctantly - as though the director’s hand is being forced by the medium’s necessarily short running time. This series delights in subverting our expectations. An ice fisherman is pulled into the water by the brute strength of his catch. Two men carrying a pane of glass across a street are thwarted not by a skidding car but a distracted third party clumsily wielding a ladder. A man’s romantic clinch with his sweetheart before boarding a ship is undermined when the weight of his luggage causes him to plunge off the dock.
By the time Andersson is shooting ads for the national lottery in the 1980s, his familiar protagonists begin to appear. Those paunchy, balding, disheveled Everymen reminiscent of Gary Larson’s Midwestern rubes, this time failing to score the winning numbers rather than hawking joke shop novelties. He’s moved inside too, already preferring the cartoonish artificiality of sets built in his Stockholm studio over location shooting. The aspiring Lotto contestant even watches the draw being broadcast in a beige barroom with a checkerboard floor, a set highly reminiscent of Limping Lotte’s beer hall in A Pigeon… That drab colour scheme will recur again and again. In a commercial for Sockerbolaget, an artificial sweetener, two old ladies are seen sporting the pallid, sickly makeup that has since become Andersson’s trademark.
Throughout his career, the director has shown himself to be an acute and distinctive observer of human beings, with a keen eye for the absurdity of our day-to-day rituals and mantras. Whether it’s the adults behaving like children in his ads for Dumle and Kex confectioneries or the stingy dairy farmer constantly on the lookout for greedy family members “eating him out of house and home” in a hilarious series for Arla, Andersson is always interested in people. The difference here is that he is much less free to explore his concern for suffering than he is in his features. Adverts are rarely the place for reflecting on the more tragic aspects of existence.
He nevertheless finds plenty of room for darkness. There’s a malicious glee to the staging of those accidents and in lingering on the passengers’ reaction as several businessmen, a stewardess and finally two pilots parachute out of an aeroplane (“Drop gently into retirement with Handelsbanken pension plans”). In one series for Sitram, a French manufacturer of frying pans, a wife violently assaults her husband with the pot he has unwisely gifted her from an inferior rival brand. An ad for a white goods retailer meanwhile shows a woman carefully cleaning out a fireplace before dumping the resulting binful of soot over her own head to illustrate the point that, “It’s just plain stupid to pay too much.” A starker representation of madness you’d be hard pressed to find.
For all that, Andersson’s commercials are first and foremost very funny. An ad for Bavarian beer in which two glum Swedes go upstairs to complain about the oompah music from a party in the flat above and end up joining in with the lederhosen-clad revelers is absolutely joyous.
They’re also every bit as carefully constructed as his features. A single-shot add for Felix Ketchup, now sugar-free, apparently took 118 takes.