A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Written by Roy Andersson
Directed by Roy Andersson
A favourite in the last year’s Venice International Film Festival main competition programme even before it was awarded the Golden Lion, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence serves as a final instalment in the Swedish filmmaker’s exploration of “what it means to be human”. As a work of a world-renowned director whose career has now progressed for over almost a half of a century, Andersson’s newest would have probably enjoyed as much attention even without the marketing-friendly trilogy package with an existentialist stamp. In a way, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence almost works better as an independent work, not sharing with its two predecessors much except the sad clown humour, gloomy humanism and the sometimes subdued, but nevertheless meticulously planned visuals.
Once dubbed the “slapstick Bergman”, Andersson lets on the loose his taste for an almost sadistically entertaining issues of everyday banality, the feeling of insignificance of an individual against the world and disaster looming over every corner of the surreal world of A Pigeon’s. The individual vignettes do not share the same setting, not even in terms of temporality: a scene of a recently deceased man lying on the floor at the cafeteria check-out, the cashier asking whether someone wants his untouched shrimp sandwich and beer, for example, shares the same 101 minutes with—what proves to be the film’s most engaging couple of scenes—the legendary Swedish warrior, King Charles XII, striding into a present-day bar, immediately banning the women from the premises and recruiting the more eligible men to accompany him. Perhaps the most central to Andersson’s equivalent of narrative are the two travelling salesmen, doing their depressing routine of presenting their “funniest” and “most entertaining” articles of commerce until one of them just plain gives up on life.
But the trouble with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is, it gets old long before that. Though the deadpan, completely immobile and ironically distanced camera delights in its self-satisfied observance of the absurdist theatre in endlessly long takes that the writer/director made the world before it into, and though the commentary on world-systems from late capitalism to monarchy and colonial exploitation is witty and (sometimes shockingly) entertaining, a lot of it ultimately falls flat. Scattered all over the place, the vignettes lack a cohesive statement that would leave us thoughtful or at least consistently entertained instead of being mildly amused by Andersson’s (however impressive) intellectualist repertoire. The overall experience therefore found at least a little bit wanting, it seems as if the aesthetics of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence never succeeds in matching the overall statement of the film in a way that Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living have. If, to an unfamiliar viewer, we were therefore to recommend these two more than or at least before A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, we would hardly be overstating it.