Director: Roy Andersson
Screenplay: Roy Andersson
Producers: Linn Kirkenaer, Pernilla Sandstrom, Hakon Overas
Starring: Nisse Vestblom, Holger Andersson
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 101 minutes
Recently, in a conversation about Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, I accidentally and to my lasting shame used the word ‘pretentious’. While it may seem like a perfectly valid word to anyone who doesn’t regularly read online film reviews, the proliferation of occurrences of ‘pretentious’ in reviews of anything that doesn’t follow a linear narrative or attempts something more inventive than the most straightforward storytelling is mightily discouraging. Apart from the fact that wheeling out this word unfailingly results in a return volley of hopelessly underthought, self-congratulatory retorts from dunderheaded supporters of the word’s target (usually along the lines of “why don’t you just go and watch The Butterfly Effect, you’re clearly not ready for a film of this calibre”), I see the word ‘pretentious’ as the very enemy of invention itself. It is viciously wielded with the intention of discouraging any effort to deviate from the most well-trodden path, when surely it is better to fail spectacularly at attempting something unusual than it is to settle for the ordinary through fear of being decried for overreaching.
It was in reviews for Swedish director Roy Andersson’s black comedy/drama A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence that I most recently encountered the word ‘pretentious’ and I found myself feeling more sickened by it than ever. Perhaps it was because I haven’t seen a film in a long time with which I have fallen so completely in love as I did with this astonishing look at the human condition but it was more than likely because A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is resolutely unpretentious in its varied, insightful and absurdist sketches of carefully chosen moments in the lives of a collection of sullen Swedes. The film is the third part of a trilogy of films by Andersson that examine the strange intricacies of being human, which began with Songs from the Second Floor and continued with You, The Living. Having seen neither in their entirety (I desperately attempted but failed to watch You, The Living on late night TV through a haze of red wine and eyelids that craved the company of their lower counterparts), my one previous experience of Andersson’s work was World of Glory, a fantastic tragi-comic short film that hits many of the same downbeat comic notes as A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.
After his 1975 film Giliap received terrible reviews, Andersson did not return to making feature films until the turn of the century. In the meantime he mostly made his living in advertising, where he developed his instantly recognisable style. Andersson’s 21st century films are all made up of very few shots, divided into carefully assembled scenes observed by a static camera perfectly placed to capture every bit of action that occurs on screen, whether it be in the foreground or through the tiniest window at the back of the frame. Andersson then begins to present the viewer with a series of what might be described as anaemic comedy sketches which at first seem unconnected but slowly build into something more cohesive through shared themes, repeated phrases or recurring characters. Andersson’s unique appeal is the very definition of an acquired taste. For some, it may please immediately but those who are initially baffled or turned off by it are advised to continue watching. For those who are susceptible, its charms (if such a light and fluffy word can be applied to this bleakly resonant approach) will become apparent quicker than you may expect.
To methodically describe every occurrence in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence would be to undermine the pleasure of watching it unfold and piecing together its jigsaw logic oneself, but it is instructive to those whose curiosity has been piqued to touch on a handful of key passages. The film opens with a trio of what it calls ‘meetings with Death’, the latter two of which provide some of the film’s most accessible grim chuckles. But it is the opening sequence in the trilogy that perhaps best defines Andersson’s style. This simple sequence involves a man of late middle-age attempting with a wilting determination to open a wine bottle, while in the background we hear his wife singing in the kitchen. This pale and sullen figure somehow elicits an immediate desire to snigger, even though he also inspires a strange, melancholic pity before he has performed any action. His brief struggle with the wine bottle results in him being overwhelmed by some kind of fatal reaction. Perhaps he has suffered a cardiac arrest or brain aneurysm, either way a pretty grim conclusion, especially when accompanied by the soundtrack of his still oblivious wife’s vocal cacophony. Now, this scenario certainly doesn’t read as funny on paper and in the hands of most filmmakers it would not even appear to be intended for comedic purposes, unless they had the unfortunate victim overplay his infarction to a cartoonish extreme. Why this sad scene, which lest we forget Andersson has chosen to open his film with, should provoke a desire to laugh is difficult to comprehend and yet it does. It’s not the sort of laughter that leaves you feeling good and could perhaps be equated with that incongruous desire to giggle when someone tells you their granny has just died. This is laughter as an imprisoning force rather than a release. It binds us to the film’s tone and subject matter instantly and while we appear to be going along willingly, we are actually the unsuspecting captives of our independent rib-cages.
Not every moment in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is so relentlessly bleak and yet Death is never far away from any of its scenes. This superficially grim approach has often seen Andersson compared with fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman and yet a much more fitting comparison would be with Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel, whose films tap into a similarly undefinable balance between humour and dread, and whose 1974 satire The Phantom of Liberty takes a sketch-based approach which seems like it may have been a powerful influence on Andersson. In the moments in which it reaches its most outlandish absurdities, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence can also dimly evoke the spirit of Monty Python, the dark and troubling nature of whose unpredictable humour has often been overlooked. In particular, the interruption of a scene in a bar by King Charles XII of Sweden immediately brings to mind the unexpected arrival of the Spanish Inquisition. This lengthy sequence, in which a parade of soldiers troops past on their way to battle, is replayed later in the film with a depleted number of wounded soldiers limping away from defeat. It’s a bold surrealist gambit in a film which is mostly based around small moments situated in a demonstrably real world. Its antithesis is the sequence that Andersson chooses to close on, which is both hilarious and unexpected in its banal inconsequentiality.
Andersson introduces a throughline into A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence in the shape of two travelling novelty salesmen, Sam and Johnathan, who appear in an increasing amount of the film’s scenes and repeat a three-part sales pitch which somehow gets funnier and funnier through each repetition. As played by the amusingly deadpan Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson, Sam and Johnathan would be the last people you would ever choose to sell party items, although their novelties (which includes a symbolically relevant laughter bag, from which an invisible imprisoned entity emits joyless echoes of mirth) all have a sinister undertone to them. The increasing hopelessness of their business pursuits is made even worse by Jonathan’s emotional instability and tendency to dream of troubling things and torture himself with sad music. Their plotline, initially the most blatantly comic in the film, darkens as the film goes on, but Andersson also inserts lighter images amongst his nightmarish depictions which the viewer hardly registers but which stay with you as beacons of hope as the film plumbs the depths of despair. Ultimately, when it is over, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence leaves you feeling surprisingly light, as if the sickness contained in the brand of laughter it has milked from you has effected a kind of exorcism on your negative emotions.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was inspired by the painting The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which features images of several birds perched on branches. Andersson imagined they were watching human beings and wondering what we were doing. In attempting to answer this question, Andersson has provided us with a bird’s-eye view of humanity which is funny, sad, terrifying and incisive but never, never pretentious.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Artificial Eye on 13th July 2015.