Review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

This year’s Venice International Film Festival concluded yesterday by giving the Golden Lion to the Venezuelan film Desde Allá (From Afar). Unfortunately I’m not in Venice, but I thought it would be appropriate to squeeze in a review for last year’s Golden Lion winner, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence from Roy Andersson.

In this fictional wonderland everybody is happy that you’re doing fine, selling vampire teeth is considered an actual profession (I hope I’m not offending any professional vampire teeth sellers here), Charles XII visits the local bar and a drink costs you either a schilling, or a kiss. But a beautifully haunting singalong in a bar in the 1940’s, comes at a price. Sexual harassment on the dance floor, two grown men dealing with their failures, an understated yet gruesome depiction of slavery and so, so much death, are equally part of the universe Andersson created here.

There’s a particular scene, which might as well be a description of the film.

What are you doing?

Listening to this song. 
It's so beautiful...
but horribly sad too.

What's horrible about it?

What he sings at the end.
That he's going to heaven
to meet his parents.
How horrible.

Then why listen to it?

I can't help it.
I've tried to stop,
but I can't.

That’s what A Pigeon Sat on Branch Reflecting on Existence is. A beautiful tragedy you can’t keep your eyes from. One of the most unnerving scenes is the one pictured below. A dance instructor teaches her class some Flamenco routines. No cuts, no camera movements and nothing but repetition. We focus on one of the male students, put front and center. He gets a lot of special attention from the instructor, who can’t seem to keep her hands off of him. It’s made very clear that he’s not enjoying her sexual advances, which makes it uncomfortable, yet weirdly interesting to watch. There’s no context to this fragment, until later in the film where you can see them arguing through a window from a cafe. Andersson makes good use of deep focus to make sure that you’re not only watching what is happening in the foreground. He calls your attention to the background, where often, more interesting things are happening. A lot like life.

pigeon1

But that is just one particular sequence in the film. The film as a whole is much harder to pin down. As Robbie Collin, film critic for The Telegraph, so eloquently puts it:

“You just have to watch it [The Living Trilogy], then grab a net and try to coax your soul back down from the ceiling.”

The Living Trilogy consists of the only three films Andersson has made since the year 2000: Songs from the Second Floor; You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. I have to confess to not having watched any of his previous work so far, but A Pigeon stands perfectly on its own, and might even prove to be more intriguing coming to it cold.

The film literally opens with a pigeon, probably not doing much reflecting cause it’s dead, and a man presumably reflecting on the stuffed animals or skeletons he’s admiring in a museum. Meanwhile his wife (again, presumably), not so patiently waits for him to get it over with. The score is immediately introduced and sets the tone for the rest of the film. We then get served to three ‘tableau’s’ dealing with death. One of them is featured in the trailer below and deals with the practicalities of a man dying on a ship. Where to put the body? What to do with the food he just ordered? Will someone drink his beer? I can’t shake of the feeling that in a way, this is a bleaker version of a Wes Anderson film. I am supported in that thought by the top comment in the comments section on youtube.

“Wes Anderson is wet right now.” (Six likes, suggesting Anders(s)on fans just aren’t comments section people.

When we run out of deaths, we move to the dance class, and it’s not until after that scene that we get introduced to our main characters. Two of the saddest man you could probably imagine, who time and time again, claim that “they just want people to have fun.” It’s their job to go from place to place to sell joke-shop articles, such as vampire teeth and “a new item they have a lot of faith in”: a mask of “Uncle One-Tooth.” They serve as some form of a common thread throughout the film. We meet people they meet, or visit places they visited. But Andersson doesn’t seem to follow any strict rules. Often the link to our two salesmen is very thin, or in some cases completely nonexistent.

One example would be the scene towards the end where a bunch of white soldiers violently order black people into a huge copper cylinder with the name of a Swedish industrial company on it. Another bunch of white people, these ones are rich and old, look upon the spectacle that the slaves provide them with, at the cost of their lives. Or the scene ,where the scientist isn’t slightly moved by the pain the monkey she is using as a test subject, is going through. She’s just happy that the person on the other end of the line is doing fine.

The Living Trilogy promises to explore the human condition, to show, but not really show, what life is. As it turns out, there’s a lot of darkness to it. Life is trivialized, but at the same time given a lot of weight to it. Each scene leaves a mark.

a_pigeon_sat_on_a_branch_reflecting_on_existence_3000

Some of those scenes are a lot lighter in tone though. A present day bar is disrupted by the visit of Charles XII, on his way to war against Russia. Before the king visits however, his people make sure that the bar is woman free. They are chased out rather violently, but the fact that his is happening in a modern day location makes it hilariously absurd. That is, until you realize that it isn’t that absurd after all, and you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth. King Charles then proceeds to inviting the good looking bartender over in his tent, but totally not to make out or anything. #NoHomo

The highlight of the film is a scene in another bar. Customers are making remarks on a very old man, with a very bad hearing, and the waitress tells them that he’s been a regular for sixty years now. We then flash back to 1943 where, in that same bar, a musical number erupts. You can watch the beginning of that below.

Random Thoughts

  • The film ends with people waiting on a bus. One of them was sure it was Thursday, but apparently it’s Wednesday. Not quite remembering what day it is, is exactly how I felt after watching this.
  • Most of the prominent characters are male. 😦
  • I love the composition and colour. Pretty much every frame could be a painting.
  • I very often laughed out loud (for real, not your typical lol), and I very often stared at my screen with my mouth open.
  • “I’m glad you’re doing fine.” Everyone on their phones, speaking to someone they don’t care enough for to check up on in person.
  • There is still so much more I haven’t even touched on. It’s astounding.

Verdict

A+ If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it right now. Seriously, no excuse is valid. If you have, feel free to leave a comment. I will continue to go through the rest of the Living Trilogy, all be it in reverse order.

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