Written and directed by Roy Andersson
The final part in Roy Andersson’s “trilogy about a being a human being”, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a droll but despairing inquiry into the human condition. Its thirty-nine distinct vignettes, each infused with recurring characters and repeated jokes, consolidate into a rumination on the absurdity of life and potential consequences of human dispassion. The eponymous pigeon, the least impressive exhibit in a dreary museum, appears in the opening scene, studied by a man whose wife is waiting resignedly in the corner. Like all the characters in the film, they are in stasis, trapped by their inexplicable attachments, habits and routines, mere artifacts in the wunderkammer that is life.
Each scene is meticulously composed, always shot with a fixed camera positioned at a slight angle. The sets are remarkable, adorned in Andersson’s trademark palette of grey, green, brown and beige; everything is arranged to convey the structure of the space and the effect it has on those who interact with it. There is always something in the background – back rooms with their doors ajar, tower blocks, restaurants, and seas – drawing attention to the external space, with all its barriers and inaccessibility. Throughout the film, communication is shown to be largely impossible, limited to empty and desperate platitudes, expressed more out of custom than desire.
Even when the scenes are full of people, those in the background are often stationary, indifferent to what is happening in front of them. In one episode, which takes place on a ferry, a man dies right after paying for his lunch. Unable to charge for it twice, the waitress offers to give it away for free. Someone steps up and claims his pint of beer – refusing the sandwiches – then re-joins the rest of the passengers. Andersson shows no judgement, only fondness, for the man who takes the beer, thereby injecting some life into an otherwise motionless scene. It is the background characters’ disinterested stillness that creates the sense of isolation; the man’s death might have appeared less lonely if they were not present at all.
Despite its formal excellence and success in establishing the mood, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence frustrates as it progresses. The characters keep cropping up but are never developed and the running jokes start to wear rather thin. For example, the film’s main protagonists, two travelling salesmen (Nisse Westblom and Holger Andersson) who flog novelty items, are initially interesting, but there are only so many times you need to hear about their new Uncle One Tooth masks. This repetition serves an important thematic purpose but that is no reason to overdo it, particularly as the links between even the most disparate scenes are abundantly clear. Adding to the impression that he might be overstating his ideas, Andersson also uses intertitles arbitrarily, providing no information which can’t be inferred from the scenes themselves.
The most inspired episodes are typically drawn on once or twice, notably those involving an anachronistic eighteenth century army stopping off in a modern day bar. Led by King Charles XII, who enters the bar on horseback and throws out all the women, they march off to war with great pomp and ceremony, only to return a few scenes later, beaten, wounded and blind. The king, now riding flat on his back, pops in to use the bathroom and finds that it’s engaged. It’s a grand metaphor but it’s convincing, containing all life’s extravagance, banality and irony. There are other arresting scenes and interesting ideas but as a whole Andersson’s film never quite comes together. For all its quirks, coherence and outstanding design, it feels strangely insignificant – for all its laughs, rather sad.
– Rob Dickie