Avian Awareness: Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2014) – DVD review
Don’t you think it’s funny that nothing’s what it seems? Roy Andersson does, as bleak comedy emerges from life’s pallid, surreal woes.
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence
(Roy Andersson, 2014)
Roy Andersson’s mordant comedy is defined by laughter; specifically, the hysterical, mocking laughter of a novelty toy being hawked by the film’s main characters, a duo of useless salesman. That their other goods consist of a set of vampire teeth and a hideous mask gives you some idea of the tone of that laughter.
If it’s unclear what we’re laughing at, or why, that’s precisely the point; as the title suggests, this is a very different vision from everyday perspective and it is deliberately perplexing. The pigeon might be Andersson himself, a director who has the formal austerity of Slow Cinema but the playful mise en scene of Jacques Tati.
Andersson’s static takes – usually involving people trapped in a room, existentially fated to fail to escape off-screen despite open doorways and windows –have a helplessly nightmarish humour, even before the imagery takes in warfare, animal experimentation and slavery. And the art direction favours zombie-like motion and pallid, ashen make-up. Like Monty Python on downers, it is the sketch show that might play in hell.
What is the pigeon reflecting on, exactly? In one of the film’s many detours, a young girl with Down’s Syndrome comes on stage to recite a poem. In a typically leftfield twist, she doesn’t actually recite anything; instead, an interviewer grills her on the content and she simply recounts the narrative, her attempt at art replaced by a grinding functionality.
As it happens, the pigeon is worried about not having any money and it seems many of the characters are similarly pigeon-holed. The salesman bumble about like the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross reimagined by Samuel Beckett, while one stand-out scene charts (in song, no less) the transactional nature of intimacy, as a waitress promises to give out drinks to destitute soldiers in return for kisses.
Some of the scenes are too wayward and gnomic to make their purpose known, but the overall thrust is clear and there is no doubting Andersson’s control. In the film’s most astounding sequence, an unbroken ten-minute take, another seemingly routine pitch by the novelty toy salesmen is interrupted by the forces of 18th Century Swedish monarch King Charles XII. This savage, Buñuelian twist links Andersson’s themes far beyond the present day, but which is most notable for the bravura, Tati-esque progress of an entire army marching past the café window in the background… while, presumably, that pigeon circles overhead, wondering what the hell is going on.