A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting on Existence Dir. Roy Andersson

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Styles: vignettes, comical existential ennui
Others: Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living

Swedish director Roy Andersson’s last two films, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, have often been referred to as “post-apocalyptic” due to their pale, zombie-like actors, washed-out color palettes, glacial pacing and a generally morbid fascination with death, loneliness and the meaninglessness of life. But a post-apocalypse implies a singular event which bridges pre- and post-, where Andersson’s recent films, including his newest, final installment to his trilogy “about being and human being,” A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting on Existence, imply that mankind has been enduring an agonizingly slow and painful apocalypse throughout the course of history called existence. Fortunately, Andersson mines all the comedy imaginable from his horrifyingly awkward and depressing vignettes, and while Pigeon isn’t quite as stylistically innovative or complex as the first two in his trilogy, it finds interesting new ways of communicating his vision within his well-established visual style.

The film begins with three extended shots each depicting the death of an obese man in the most mundane situation imaginable. When the last of these shots comes, the third man is already dead, lying prostrate on the ground while two men check his vitals. A cashier, realizing he has already paid for his sandwich and beer, casually asks the other patrons if they would like either item free of charge and a homely man towards the back of the frame slowly raises his hand to claim his prize. The situation itself is comically ironic and absurd, but played out in one of Andersson’s now-typical deep-focus, long shots with no cuts or camera movements, it takes on a deeper, darker existential truth that could only surface through something so eerily surreal emanating from something so commonplace. Like the most intriguing and mystifying moments of David Lynch or Werner Herzog, it is the elasticity of time created by these extended pauses that grant shots like these both their poetic power and strange, unsettling humor.

After the prologue finishes, A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting on Existence unfurls in a series of loosely related vignettes, most of which focus on two travelling salesman who sell pathetic novelty items because, as their over-rehearsed, deadpan sales pitch goes, they “want to help people have fun.” The irony, which is made painfully apparent within seconds of the film’s opening, is that fun is not a concept that exists anymore in Andersson’s cinematic universe and even our own laughter at the absurdity of the situations he portrays is often stifled by the extremity of the sadness and ungainliness on display. Through these two men, unable to experience fun or joy on any level, and their undying commitment to bring it to others, Andersson makes some of his most graceful statements on humanity’s resilience in the face of impossible boundaries as well as our inherent greed, cruelty and inability to meaningfully connect to one another.

As with his prior two films, the greed and cruelty on display in Pigeon are inextricably linked to the rise of capitalism, as evidenced by many of the modern vignettes with the salesmen, but in this film, he often regresses even further into the past to show the once positive aspects of tradition and national pride. The first of these sequences, functioning almost as a musical interlude, takes us within the same bar from the present to 1943, during which the Swedes were notably neutral against Hitler, where the bar’s owner, Limping Lotte, traipses around the bar leading a sing-and-response where she convinces broke navy sailors to make out with her for free drinks.

The other historical sequences are far more disturbing in their representations of national pride and historical whitewashing. The first occurs over two shots, the first of which have our travelling salesmen enter a bar in modern time with 50s rock-n-roll playing on a jukebox. Out of nowhere, 18th Century Swedish soldiers enter the bar, followed by more men on horseback, who, at sword point, force all women to leave the bar and comically assist King Charles II off his horse to enjoy a seltzer water. When the extended sequence appears to have reached its innocuous apex, the king has an assistant tell the young bartender that someone so young and healthy belongs on the battlefield and that he will share a personal tent with the King. As the king not-so-coyly slides his hand over to bartender’s, the true horror lurking beneath the pleasantries and cordialities of the past, particularly between class barriers, is revealed in a most strange fashion.

The final historical interlude is even more of a non sequitur, this time breaking completely from our salesmen’s odyssey to nowhere, yet it provides the film with its most haunting, perplexing and iconic imagery. It is a long shot of Swedish men in 19th Century safari attire gathered around what appears to be an enormous barrel with trumpets protruding from its sides. After an lengthy period of leaving the audience wondering what exactly is going on, a man with a whip leads several slaves into the barrel, locks them inside and lights a fire beneath it. The barrel begins to slowly rotate as beautiful and melancholy ambient music comes out as smoke exits the trumpets. Andersson then cuts to the reflection of the burning barrel in the glass doors of a modern skyscraper as wealthy Swedish businessmen and their wives come out to watch as if it were an event for their own pleasure. In another wordless sequence, Andersson makes perhaps the most enigmatic statement in his entire oeuvre and in creating an image of enduring power, touches again on one of Sweden’s buried truths — their explicit involvement in the slave trade in the West Indies that was later denied by the King and mostly forgiven and forgotten by his subjects.

Throughout A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Andersson melds the humorous and horrifying side effects of a dehumanizing political system and reveals the power of national pride to force a collective forgetting at the cost of the soul of its people. If Andersson’s characters appear as shells of human beings, mere remnants of a whole and healthy people, it is not only due to an extreme pessimist’s view that the end is near and humanity is shattered at its core, but because he believes in the, albeit slight, possibility of redemption. And rather than ending on a horrific note of a lost historical truth, he instead reminds us of our own silly ineptitudes in our simple, daily routines. As a group of strangers stand at a bus stop, one man states that it feels like a Thursday even though it is, in fact, Wednesday. This ridiculous, yet all-too-relatable observation is met with the disdain of several bystanders, one of whom scolds the man saying “Yesterday was Tuesday. Today is Wednesday. Tomorrow is Thursday. If you can’t keep track of that, chaos will reign.” And it is in that simple statement that Andersson connects his through lines of Swedish history or modern ennui — the façade of order is not merely enforced by those in power, but by all of us, even in our most ordinary actions. While that order may in fact be keeping chaos at bay, it is worth considering the inexorable costs that come with it.

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