Roy Andersson clearly wants to blend Monty Python with a more depressed strain of Ingmar Bergman, though why he does isn’t obvious. It’s apparent that he’s trying to build a new kind of feature film in which the “story” gets reduced to scenes, and the humor and the pathos get condensed, mashed down into weird details and minimalist cinematic poetry. After one hour and 40 minutes, though, it begins to feel like a stylish slideshow. Here we watch 39 vignettes shot with a still camera pointed into deep rooms filled with unhappy Swedes. The vignettes concern themselves with topics like death, happiness, and exploitation. Many of the snippets feature two bedraggled buffoons named Jonathan and Sam, who are having a bad time selling novelty items in bleak bars. “We just want people to be happy,” says Jonathan, not speaking for the director.
To be fair, the mini-dramas are funny in a Samuel Beckett-meets-New Yorker-cartoon sort of way. The second vignette, for instance, is set in a hospital room where a family has come to watch the matron die. She, meanwhile, clutches hard at a big purse. When her rather severe son shows up, he tries to reason with her. She can’t take it into the next world, right? He tries to pull it away, she clutches and squeaks, the bed rolls off camera. It’s funny, and it’s grim. But more puzzling stories await, including two about a young king who enters into a joyless bar as his entourage marches off to war — he needs to use the bathroom, but it’s occupied. Still later, we see a surreal scene of British colonial horror, though the satire here owes more to The Meaning of Life than it does to Heart of Darkness.
Andersson’s vision is compelling at times, boring for a while, and then intriguing again. What you can’t really declare, with all this Beckettian, Brechtian, Bergmanian, Fellinian, and Pythonian humor, is that it seems original. The visual experience is more fun than anything Andersson tries to say: He’s holding up a 21st-century mirror to reflect on the 1960s.