By Michael Roddy
VENICE (Reuters) - In Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson's offbeat film "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence", shown at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday, a businessman about to shoot himself in a posh office takes a last call on his mobile phone.
"I'm happy to hear you're doing fine," he says to the unidentified and unheard caller. In one of the running gags of this laconic but droll movie, the distraught man is not clearly heard and has to repeat the platitude.
Andersson, one of Sweden's most successful filmmakers since Ingmar Bergman, and the creator of many often hilarious television commercials, does not do superficial or light.
His Venice film, which is in contention for the festival's top Golden Lion award, takes its name from a bird that can be seen sitting on the end of a leafless tree branch in winter in a painting by the 16th-century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel.
That information will not help unravel the meaning of the seemingly only barely related vignettes that Andersson has woven into a feature film.
Most of them are shot from fixed camera positions held for the duration of the scene, in the style of Charlie Chaplin, who is one of Andersson's cinema heroes, and which could take a month or longer to prepare and film, he said.
"You asked me what is it about," Andersson said in response to a question at a press conference. "It's about our life, it's about us, this movie," he said, which was the closest he came to answering the question.
"I have been involved, and made movies, with storytelling before but now, today, I don't think it's very interesting, it's boring for me to look at cinema with stories, with complications and it comes out happy in the final scenes," he added.
"I want to make sure you go down in life and tell about different things, about...living, human beings."
Those people include a hefty tango teacher who has a crush on a handsome lad in her class who rejects her advances over a lunch in a posh restaurant where their tiff is seen, but not heard, from outside through a huge picture window.
Two of the recurring characters are a pair of sad-sack traveling salesmen selling shopworn novelty items including vampire fangs and a fright mask. Their clients stiff them for payments and their supplier is chasing them for money, but they keep up the pretence that their products make life entertaining.
Most improbable is the appearance of Sweden's late 17th-century militarist King Charles XII, who invaded Russia but was defeated at the battle of Poltava in 1709.
He is shown leading a horse-cavalry battalion in 17th-century military regalia through a bleak modern commercial landscape as seen from a fixed camera angle inside a coffee shop.
Charles actually rides into the coffee shop, on his horse, through large double doors, while all the women are told to leave. He orders a mineral water and attempts to pick up a young man behind the counter, telling him he is too handsome to be doing such work and inviting him to sleep in his tent.
Andersson said he wanted to explode what he called a right-wing cult centered on Charles who he said "was afraid of civilized living and could only live within a war".
"And of course it's very clear that he was gay, there's nothing special with that, but on the other hand he was been a symbol in Sweden for a macho man, so...the right wings they adore him as a symbol for power but they have not confessed or dared to say publicly that he was a homosexual.
"So I really wanted to have a more correct description of our history," he said.
Historical accounts do not necessarily agree with Andersson.
(Reporting by Michael Roddy; Editing by Ralph Boulton)