Like Its Title, 'A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence' Is Brilliantly Odd
Roy Andersson's latest absurdist trip into the lives of others is as good as anything he's done.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceDirector: Roy Andersson
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom
Distributor: Artificial Eye
Studio: Roy Andersson Filmproduktion AB, 4 1/2 Film
UK Release date: 2015-07-13
The golden age of the silver screen has long passed. All attempts to revive it have been subdued by multi-format viewing and the post-millennial rise of television, the latter of which is now enjoying a golden age all of its own. The end isn’t quite nigh though. Major studios might be content to wave the white flag, doubling down on bland CGI and familiarity, but not everyone has given up on film. Refusing to bow to the prevailing wind, Swedish director Roy Andersson continues to walk his own unique path through the intricacies of modern life. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a glorious series of absurdist vignettes that rounds out his loosely connected “Living” trilogy, is as grey as it is colourful, and as silly as it is sharp.
There’s no lack of ambition on display either. Andersson is after life in its various forms: a morbid, pessimistic life, one that is painfully recognizable. He dresses it up in a beautifully controlled environment all of his own making, but he strips out his idiosyncratic flourishes, resulting in an almost documentary feel to the oddball collection of characters he chooses to follow. That’s not to say his approach is a distraction. Andersson’s best work is a perfect marriage between his pure cinematic sensibilities and an astute understanding of people. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence ranks with his very best work.
It’s odd, though, there’s no mistaking that. The film opens with three snapshots of death: death on a cruise liner, death in a city apartment, and impending death in a hospital. Each scene is succinct in its depiction of departing life and layered with deadpan humour. The dead man on the ship has left an already paid for meal; another passenger steps up to take his beer. The old woman condemned to a hospital bed slides side-to-side as her relatives fight over belongings. It only gets weirder from here.
Andersson introduces Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom), the closest we get to central characters. A pair of bickering novelty joke salesmen, they wander around hawking vampire teeth, a laughter bag and an uncle one-tooth mask. Passionless demonstrations fail to convince anyone to purchase the goods. We find them visiting offices, trying to collect payment from previous customers, sitting in bars and squabbling in a dormitory style building that counts as home. Other stories branch out suddenly. The underground bar jumps back half a century to World War II when lucky soldiers get a free shot if they kiss the limping owner. Half a century is nothing. Later, in a dingy café, King Charles XII of Sweden appears marching by with his army on the way to fight the Russians in 1708, marching back in disarray a little later.
Death is matched by cruelty and obsession. A dance instructor pursues one of her adult students aggressively, touching inappropriately in classes, before rowing while out at dinner. There’s also a scientist blithely administering electric shocks to a monkey while chatting away on the phone, and in a chilling scene, Andersson marches black slaves into a giant rotating drum where their dying screams are translated into music for the watching colonialists.
It sounds dark, and it is, but it’s also very funny. Even the bleakest moments are shot-through with off-kilter ideas. Each frame is packed full of action offering jokes behind drama and drama behind jokes. While a further attempt to sell novelty items fails in the foreground, a woman bangs a shoe on a small booth behind. After walking off, the owner pops out in the mistaken belief that a customer has arrived. When the king rides through, his courtiers remove all women from the café before marching in. While Sam and Jonathan watch, they’re chased out and a man playing the slot machines is whipped.
All of this unfolds with a slow measured grace hiding great vibrancy. Everyone sports a deathly pastel pallor, made up like sinister marionettes as is Andersson’s wont. The greying colour scheme creeps all over; the motionless camera offers plenty of opportunity to take in the world he’s created without the distraction of jerky movements or snazzy editing. He simply places it in the ideal position to observe the entire scene and lets the action play out. Don’t mistake that for a lack of effort. The magic is in the detail bursting out everywhere, and his ability to ensure it’s on display for all to see.
The longer the film rolls on, the more sense it makes. Disconcertingly abstruse initially, his exploration into the corners of human lives rings truer as more time is spent in Andersson’s mind. Gradually, these strange people doing strange things start to seem familiar. Nothing is quite as strange as life. With a wicked sense of a humour, and the sharpest sense of style, Andersson makes that clear by the end.