A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)
Directed by Roy Andersson
In UK Cinemas April 24th, 2015

by Ruth Thomson

This is only the fifth feature film from intriguing 71-year-old Swedish director Roy Andersson, who it turns out is a unique individual in every way. A man who looks a lot like a Premiereship football manager but who loves life, art, Chekov, and making television commercials (over 400 so far), and who is looking forward to directing the fourth part of this current movie trilogy – he can’t help but share this with a distinct twinkle in his eye. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is part three, hot on the heels of Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, The Living (2000).

Andersson is in his own words bored by storytelling and boy does it show: as does his love of still visual images – the recurring scene of Limping Lottie’s (don’t even ask) is reminiscent of Edward Hopper to a non-expert eye, but Andersson’s real inspiration is the German artist Otto Dix who depicted the vagaries of Weimar society in the 1930’s. Like its forebears, Pigeon is a series of striking tableaux, some featuring the only two named characters in the film Sam and Jonathan, others featuring recurring minor characters like a voluptuous tango dancer and a confused sea captain, whilst others are wholly incidental.

Andersson’s attention to detail in setting these short scenes is considerable (each one takes the minimum of a month to shoot – the entire film took four years) and the results are striking in the extreme. His colour palette, entirely a range of washed out browns, greens, blues and more browns, and use of makeup (everyone looks close to death or at least sufferers of an extreme Vitamin D deficiency) must have the Swedish Minister for Tourism tearing their hair out.

Sam and Jonathan live in a hostel for single men and are sellers of novelty items along the lines of fake vampire fangs – they just want to help people have fun. This is ironic because they look at best like manic-depressives, at worst entirely suicidal. Around this merry duo Andersson casts a world of glum figures going about their daily business whilst unsuspectingly conveying the great universal balance of tragedy and comedy that infuses all of humanity. Many scenes are hilarious – the crew of a ferry stand over the corpse of a passenger discussing what to do with the shrimp sandwich he had just purchased, the retired sea captain explains that he’s now a hairdresser purely on the grounds that he’s looking after his brother-in-law’s salon, as a waiting customer shiftily exits behind him.

This is without doubt unique and clever stuff, and the critics here are loving it, but Andersson seems to go just slightly too far in his attempt at depicting all of human life by including some overtly political points: a monkey hooked up to electrodes is zapped whilst a bored looking scientist takes a call in the background, and in a particularly disturbing scene black slaves are ushered in to a large rotating steel container by British colonial types who then set fire to it as an elderly privileged crowd look on. These, along with the surreal appearance of the 18th century King Charles XII, muddy the waters of a film already densely crowded with food for thought. The mind boggles at where Andersson will take us in part four – it will no doubt be worth the wait to find out.

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