Review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence


DIR: Roy Andersson • WRI: Roy Andersson • PRO: Pernilla Sandström • DOP: István Borbás, Gergely Pálos • ED: Alexandra Strauss • MUS: Hani Jazzar, Gorm Sundberg • DES: Ulf Jonsson, Julia Tegstrom, Nicklas Nilsson, Sandra Parment, Isabel Sjostrand • CAST: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Viktor Gyllenberg


Director Roy Andersson completes his trilogy based on the themes of living and human behaviour in his Swedish comedy drama A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. As with his first two installments, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) in which a series of disjointed and illogical vignettes interrogate bleak strands of contemporary life and You, The Living (2007), a tragicomedy comprised of fifty brief sketches, which conceives that the magnificence of human existence illustrated through a variety of disparate, fragile characters, is but an illusion, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, furthermore investigates the wretched contradictions of the human experience through the use of satire, irony, ridicule and alienating cinematic techniques.


As with his first two installments, the film’s title is influenced by the creative works of celebrated artists (Peruvian poet César Vallejo in Songs From the Second Floor and Goethe’s Roman Elegies in You, The Living), the inspiration for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was drawn from the 1565 landscape painting The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in which a severely stark winter scene depicts birds observing the return of dejected huntsmen from a fruitless hunting trip, the same theme of melancholic failure mediated throughout Andersson’s film. It is the birds that observe the saturnine narrative within the human ordeal in an almost apocalyptical-like vision, impelling the birds to call into question the ventures of man and to what end he is seeking.


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence does not contain a core plot but rather comprises of a series of thirty-nine elliptical vignettes that examine the absurdity of everyday, routine life. It is loosely centred around two travelling novelty item salesmen, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom), who embark on a fruitless, monotonous odyssey, navigating the town’s spaces as they attempt to peddle novelty items to potential lugubrious customers. Rather than reap any economical reward from their idiotic salesmen’s patter, their wanderings, not only see them fall deeply into financial trouble compromising their business and friendship, but their heterogeneous encounters with idiosyncratic characters and situations expose the arsenal of the experiences of human existence; joy, absurdity, tragedy, frailty and insignificance, iterating the homogeneity of humanity’s tribulations as it attempts to navigate life and eagerly awaits death.


Shot on digital, Andersson’s dark vignettes create drab and pallid portraits through a cinematographic lens of anemic greys and browns bolstered by dry, black humour to construct an ominous backdrop of vacant, colourless characters ranging from the depressed and the absurd to the irascible and the hyperactive. Although the vignettes may appear randomly displaced and thus distancing and indecipherable, they are consciously united through an attempt to locate and extract the beauty from the doleful, in either uneventful, commonplace situations or random, spontaneous encounters.


Whether Andersson’s characters are aimlessly examining fossils on a museum tour, 18th century Swedish soldiers enjoy a sing-song and amorous affections in a 1940s vintage beer hall, the intractable King Charles XII’s desires a drink on his way to the battle of Poltava, an impassive troupe of tap dancers enthusiastically break into a zealous dance routine, an attempt to give away a dead man’s lunch in a canteen or a monkey being subjected to torture in a lab whilst a scientist converses on her mobile (which bookends the exploration of humanity to the fossil museum scene) death, loneliness and desperation underpin the plethora of tranquillized characters who remain sapped to such events, despite the persistent phrase ‘I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine’ running throughout the entire narrative.


The tone of the film is analogically morbid and pessimistic and affecting and sanguine, emphasising the axiomatic transitory condition of mortality. Its sedate pace intentionally alienates in its perplexity whilst willing the audience to digest the significance of the human experience. Its satirical and surrealist style, the appropriation of poetry, proverbs and works of art are intended to steer the film toward an existential and philosophical theme. Andersson’s use of non-professional actors can only contribute to the jaundiced milieu he has created. The lack of craft from his actors dispels any graceful physicality or polished execution in performance that is required to underpin the despair and exasperation the narrative accentuates and the optimism it is vehemently promoting and also rejecting. His abstract techniques may appear to be distancing but in actuality reflect the non-linearity of life itself, which is constructed through a series of multiple, unrehearsed episodes, to which humanity is powerless to control. As the novelty items salesmen attempt to sell vampire teeth and grotesque ‘Uncle One-Tooth’ masks and inject some joy to the saturnine townsfolk, Andersson intends his audience to reflect on how we perceive, adapt and comprehend our existence rather than merely accept it.


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence hosts a medley of black humoured influences from art, cinema, literature and theatre, with evident nods to De Sica, Tati, Beckett, Homer and the Neue Sachlichkeit art movement of 1920s Germany and as a stand alone film it is compelling for its excellent use of satire, parody, absurdity and philosophical musings. It is possibly the most accessible and least thematically interrogative into the human condition of his trilogy, the first two installments more jarring and assaultive in his style and technique, yet, it remains a darkly intensive and reflectively rich film which satisfactorily bookends his distinctive trilogy nonetheless.


                                                                                                                                 Dee O’Donoghue


12A (See IFCO for details)

100 minutes

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is released 24th April 2015


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Official Website


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