Mise-en-scène is a mercurial term within film criticism, containing an interesting history, and being described as film criticism’s “grand undefined term”. In the broadest sense of the term, mise-en-scène can encompass literally everything that a camera catches—from lighting, to actor placement, to set design. There is also a movement to use the word in a more constrained way, to describe simply a “long take”. The Wikipedia author notes that this largely comes from a misinterpretation of the French usage of the term. Andre Bazin gives my favorite explanation for the word, though, which is “an aesthetic as emphasizing choreographed movement within the scene rather than through editing.”
Whatever the official definition of the consistently undefined “mise-en-scène” used, one over-arching thing I have noticed (this is, of course, all subjective) is that the term seems to be largely used when describing silent films—the kind of fledgling early cinema that hadn’t quite defined itself yet. When staging, set design, and acting was largely still seen as an extension of theatrical performances, films not quite yet having defined their own voice. The history of film is one in which this impetus has been left behind. Film has defined and redefined itself many times since its invention, and the trend for most of that history is toward realism. First director’s started using editing and camera movement to help tell their stories and a history of theatrical acting in feature films was replaced by the naturalism of Marlon Brando and those who followed him. In this way when talking about Roy Andersson’s Living Trilogy I am really talking about a return to this classical kind of “mise-en-scène” where the camera acts as a more literal version of a fourth wall, with the audience watching the unfolding film as if it were a series of strung-together plays.
In that sense, Andersson’s trilogy is a triumph of interweaving the aspects of film and theater, calling attention to the audience and the staginess of it all, while at the same time retaining a certain autonomy, where it seems that there is an entire universe shoved into the box of the films frame. The surreal nature of the films also helps to exemplify the strange universe that each scene might contain. An individual scene may start off in a bar where one girl cries as two people make out in the corner, but it will end with an anachronistic 1800’s Prince taking over the bar and attempting to seduce the bar-back. The way that we seem to begin in the middle of an already occurring scene (it seems to be implied that the crying girl is crying because the man she was with has left to make out with another girl in the corner) leaves the audience expecting the scene to unfold one way, but when men in old fashioned garb, riding on horses begin to trounce through the background the scene turns into something completely different. Andersson has a certain knack for taking his relatively grounded character interactions but throwing something askew into the mix, altering reality just to the point where it is slightly grotesque.
I’ve been talking about The Living Trilogy as if it is all one film, but they do each have a certain identity, despite the similar construction of each. Songs from the Second Floor (2000) is perhaps the darkest of the three films. It is also (strangely) the most realized in terms of Andersson’s ability to capture the beauty in surreal moments mixed with normalcy. A scene where the despondent main character (main in the sense that it is the story that is the most continuously revisited throughout the film) rides a subway is highlighted by a soft music playing in the background that gives way to one of the patrons of the subway operatically singing to the music, which gives way to more patrons joining in. Soon there is an epic opera being sung on the subway, as the main character stares ahead, vacantly. It is a powerful scene and a good example of the simplistic beauty of cinema. The beauty is further highlighted by the fixed nature of the camera. We feel the despondency of the man much deeper as we can empathize with that strange discrepancy of feeling alone while being surrounded by people. As the camera acts as the literal fourth wall, it is as if we are on the train watching this strange scene unfold. It is nothing for a film to have such an unnatural burst of diegetic music from the actors. It is strange when the scene is built around the assumption that we, the audience, are watching a slice of life.
You, The Living (2007) is the weakest of The Living Trilogy, but it also plays around with the formula established in the first film by relying more on characters breaking the fourth wall. Overall, You, The Living feels meaner and more angsty than Songs from the Second Floor. I once came across criticisms of a novel I enjoyed, Satantango, which essentially boiled down to “it is as if the author is having fun making others’ lives miserable.” While I can see why this criticism would be made, I don’t think it diminishes from the final product. You, the Living has the same problem, where it feels like the director is having a little too much fun with the misery of his characters (one egregious example is a woman who has destroyed her common sense and sense of decency with her alcoholism), but I am not enjoying it so much this time around. There is one scene, though, where a character (a young girl who slept with the singer of a rock band, only to be brushed off by him afterwards) turns towards the camera and addresses the audience directly. Where this was done earlier in the film with a more wry effect, the girl trying to talk her way through the frustrations of her broken romantic ideals becomes touching and human in a way that the film held away for most of the running time. It is strange that breaking the fourth wall and calling attention to the fakeness of the film you are watching would turn out to ground it in such an emotionally satisfying way. I think this is where Andersson’s experiment becomes the most transparent: Stripping away the romanticism of camera movement, all you are left to interact with is the nakedly human. This can sometimes be uncomfortable, depressing, laughable, but there is always an underlying assumption of empathy to it all.
That leaves A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), which is the most polished and enjoyable of the trilogy, but also only feels like a refinement of the style that he has created with the previous two films. There are small moments in A Pigeon… where you see people interact with each other on a very candid and loving level: a mother playing with her daughter in a stroller, a couple kissing on the beach. They are small and quick moments, with no real point but the tenderness of the scene itself.
There’s something about the askew reality surrounding these small moments that emphasizes their humanity and makes the movie feel more connected to an emotional core than these films sometimes betray. Perhaps this message only works as well as it does with the constant reminder that we are, in fact, an audience and what we are watching is staged, but to then contrast those moments against something honest and bare. In the end, Andersson is really only talking about you, the living (eh, eh, see what I did there).