This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Venice Film Festival.
Unlike stupid real Christmas, cinephile Christmas only comes every eight years or so. That’s how long it’s taken Swedish legend Roy Andersson to mount each of the films in his “trilogy about being a human being.” This morning in Venice, however, when we checked under the tree, there it was: the final part of that trilogy, a film laboring under/reveling in the cumbersome title of “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”
It is immediately the world we know from the first two films in the trilogy, “Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, The Living” —hypnotic, meticulous, rendered in shades of gray and beige, and marked by silica gel humor (not just dry, a desiccant). Playing out in Andersson’s unique storytelling style, borne of the desire to have every scene work as a contained entity, ‘Pigeon’ is a near-perfect cap to a near-perfect trilogy, a cavalcade of oddness, humor, banality and even horror. Taken as a whole, or as segments (the film is dotted with chapter headings), or as individual scenes, ‘Pigeon,’ like its predecessors, manages the uniquely Anderssonian trick of not just making you notice the absurdity of existence, but reminding you to love that absurdity as well. Life is unlikely, humans are ridiculous, and the world is cruel: isn’t it great?
A droll pre-credits scene cuts from black to plunge us straight back into Andersson’s amazing milieu: in a museum room, through the furthest doors of which we can glimpse a dinosaur skeleton and milling patrons, a man carefully scrutinizes each of the stuffed birds in several glass cages, while his wife waits not so much patiently as resignedly (a trait Andersson ascribes to many of his characters). He ends up at a display featuring a rather moth-eaten, scrawny pigeon, and then they both leave the room, leaving us looking at the pigeon for a beat or two, before we cut to the title.
We’re already acclimated to the rarefied Andersson aesthetic, and already some sense can be made of that self-consciously daft title: by giving that stuffed pigeon an interior life, Andersson is perhaps drawing a direct line to how we look at his characters (and maybe humans in general)—they may seem like stuffed animals, but every creature, no matter how forlorn, tussles with the big questions. And of course, looking at them runs the risk of having them look right back (which happens a few times as characters address the camera directly). From there, the film dances in and out of its immaculately presented snapshot moments, loosely following certain characters, in particular a pair of downtrodden novelty item salesmen, one of whom is having something of an ongoing existential crisis.
Each locked-off camera shot is a mini masterpiece of set design, choreography and perfectly offbeat timing unto itself, but the great joy of Andersson’s movies always comes from picking up on the breadcrumb trail of recurring motifs and skewering side details. Five or six times and in different locations, one or other character will repeat into a phone “I’m happy to hear that you’re doing fine.” Whenever a song is sung, it’s to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And different characters hearing the words “you have no messages” summons the colossal misery of rejection on a couple of occasions.
Throughout, the actors remain largely granite-faced and sluggish, functioning more as a part of the complex whole of the mise-en-scene than as elements of primary interest. With their performances so minimal and controlled, your eye is free to move to the edge of image, to notice a pot plant or to pick up on the perfect, crisp lines of a hallway of doors, without missing any of the “action.”
What action there is in ‘Pigeon’ strikes off in directions that are odd even by Andersson’s standard. One scene in a bar is suddenly set back in 1943. Another café/bar location brings anachronism to life further as the modern patrons are interrupted by an army of early 18th Century Swedish soldiers and their King, Charles XII, who enters the café on horseback and proceeds to flirt via a liveried intermediary with a handsome young barman. The first time this scene plays out it’s for comedy, but the second time, it’s much darker, with men returning from the war, wounded, crippled, blinded and defeated, and the women in the bar are now all wailing widows.
And it’s not just sadness that Andersson’s black comedy can evoke—there are a couple of genuinely shocking moments too. A lab technician is “happy to hear that you’re doing fine” while in the foreground a monkey is strapped into some sort of mechanism and screeches while being dosed with currents of electricity. And in probably the most unsettling and memorable scene, which plays out like a live action Monty Python animation, colonial-era British soldiers pack a huge brass drum outfitted with trumpet horns of varying sizes with chained black slaves. The door is closed, and a fire is lit beneath the drum, which begins to revolve slowly (it is emblazoned with the name of Swedish mining giant Boliden) and to emit a kind of music. All this, it is revealed, is being enacted for the entertainment of a group of elderly rich, champagne-sipping white people in evening wear.
The sequence turns out to be a nightmare precipitating a further philosophical crisis in the unstable salesman, but its presence here, along with the King Charles XII segments, perhaps adds another layer to Andersson’s dissection of the human condition: how we may as a species retain legacies of guilt for atrocities past. And how perhaps the thing that is making us miserable today happened long ago, and is beyond the reach of comfort—a kind of original sin, a stain in the blood.
If it sounds despairing, it is. But the film is leavened with a marvelous drollery that places perspective on life’s absurdities by relating the very grand and huge to the tiny and banal. The final scene takes place at a bus stop at which a mild argument breaks out after one guy remarks that he thought it was Thursday, when it is in fact Wednesday. Perhaps it’s a sign of how much our brains had warped to Andersson’s rhythms by then, but we thought, “well of course it’s Wednesday–what other day of the week is more ridiculous and pointless and neither one-thing-nor-the-other than Wednesday?”
Andersson seems to occupy a kind of permanent Wednesday in his films, never more so than here. Its more despairing tone, and the absence of that one flashpoint moment of transcendence means ‘Pigeon’ does not, for us, attain the heights of “You, The Living,” but it rounds out the trilogy on a graceful, crepuscular note. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” brings Roy Andersson into the company of Beckett and TS Eliot, and captures more fully than perhaps any film we’ll see for the next eight years the awful, glorious absurdity of being a human. Especially on a Wednesday. [A-]