A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron)
Sweden (2014) Dir. Roy Andersson
This is the third film in Roy Andersson’s celebrated “Living” trilogy which began with Songs From The Second Floor (2000) and You, The Living (2007). I have only seen the latter film and I must confess I didn’t get it at all, finding very little reward for my investment. I figured that perhaps with a few years having now passed maybe things would be different with his latest film.
Unfortunately for me Andersson is still obtusely baffling and uncompromising in his pitch black comedic observations of human life which can be described as Pythonesque without the reason for knowing why we should be laughing. Imagine Spike Milligan has dropped a tab of acid and Jacques Tati deciphers Spike’s thoughts and you have a partial idea of the surrealism involved.
There is no story as such, aside from the exploits of a pair of miserable salesmen Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) who move from scene to the next trying to sell their novelty items which appear to be limited to two sets of plastic vampire teeth, a laughing bag and an item they “have a lot of faith in”, an “Uncle One Tooth” mask.
The irony of these two charisma free middle aged dullards wanting to help people have fun is not lost but as a recurring joke it wears thing rather quickly. The fact that everybody else in the film performs in a uniform deadpan style sort of ruins the joke as much as it compliments it. It should also be noted that every cast member sports a deathly pallor which is no doubts Andersson’s way of reinforcing that this is truly the conclusion of his trilogy.
So, what else can we expect? Well, there is a small café which is suddenly patronised by Charles XII of Sweden and his army, who storm in on horseback and kick out any female customers. The regent himself (Viktor Gyllenberg) is less a commanding ruler more an effete young man who takes a shine to the young male bartender.
The phrase “I’m happy to hear you are doing fine” is used from one end of a phone conservation on three different occasions, the funniest being from a sinewy, depressed little old man with a gun in his other hand. Nothing else is said or done in this particular skit but the joke I inferred from it was enough to amuse me although I probably got it wrong.
Elsewhere a man gets confused about whether the day is Wednesday or Thursday, an old man loiters outside a restaurant waiting for a confirmation call as to whether he has got the right day, and a scene from 1943 shows a landlady Lotta (Charlotta Larsson) leading the patrons of her bar in a singsong before giving a line of soldiers a shot in exchange for a kiss. This may be either a dream or a flashback concerning a deaf old customer who sits in the same bar today.
Whatever wavelength Andersson is on, I’m clearly nowhere near it in this instance yet I enjoyed his more linear and accessible 1970 opus A Swedish Love Story. The little motifs about the imminence of death were definable enough as was the barometer of this occurring, that being the slowly decaying relationship between Sam and Jonathon, otherwise this felt like the stream of consciousness as seen through the eyes of someone with a concussion.
Surrealism is quite a broad spectrum but it does help if there is a point to the madness or at least some sort of hook for those of us outside to get why it is either funny or pertinent. I didn’t get that most of the time – such as the flamenco dancing class or the poor monkey strapped into some machine in the science lab. Obviously Andersson felt they were necessary and congruent to his message unless he was trolling us to see if he could get away with putting any old rubbish on screen and still be praised for it.
Andersson has said the inspiration for the film’s title came from a painting by Breughel the Elder from 1565 entitled The Hunters in the Snow, in which a group of birds watch over a group for hunters returning to their village in the winter. He was imaging what the birds must be thinking as they witness the events of the painting taking place and trying to make sense of it all.
Obviously this deeply metaphoric work requires an intellect greater than mine to decipher the more challenging allusions presented to us here. The film opens with a silent study of a man in a museum looking at a stuffed model of the titular pigeon in a huge glass case. From this I can only gather that the randomness of the individual scenes is to represent a pigeon’s daily journey as it stops at various points and observes each case before moving on again.
Every scene is a simple tableau, shot with just one static camera in one take. No editing so the cast must be on their toes to deliver without fault when necessary. For some this is straightforward, for others – the flamenco dancers, the wartime bar scenes and of course the Charles XII skits (and the well behaved horses) – they must have been on a knife edge.
Aesthetically this a sparse film with the only real extravagances being the horses, the monkey and a giant rotating metal container into which black slaves are forced. The colour pallet is slightly washed out with a few hopeful colours allowed to slip through, while background sounds and music are mostly diegetic.
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is a wonderful title for a film but that is where my enthusiasm has to end. I won’t decry this as a bad film just because I didn’t understand or appreciate it, so more power to those who did.