The closing film in Roy Andersson’s trilogy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence offers a blackly humorous look at you, the living.
A Matter Of Life And Deathby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Somewhere in a land far away, beyond IKEA and stylish Scandinavian furniture, beyond Swedish fashion houses and bright modernist design, there’s Roy Andersson’s Living trilogy – set in a drab, dour Gothenburg of dark suits, dirty pastel walls and grim apartments. But just as A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence opens with three meetings with death, as one man carks it opening a bottle of wine or as an elderly, terminally ill woman fights her sons for her handbag of worldly riches, it’s a blackly comic cosmos of human relations. Like the tableaux and sketches that Andersson strings together, his wizened denizens are connected, telephoning each other to enquire after each other’s health, each time repeating “I said, I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” It’s a surreal universe, where a monkey is tortured with electric shocks in a lab, but also timeless where – despite the occasional mobile phone – history is chopped up into tiny pieces, with the former King of Sweden entering a bar on horseback to ask for a sparkling water, or where a toy salesman plays outdated tunes on an antiquated record player.
A man examines cases of animal exhibits in a museum, including a stuffed pigeon sitting on a branch, while his wife waits for him disinterestedly. A ferry captain dies while buying beer and a shrimp sandwich at the canteen. Another captain develops a fear of sailing and becomes a barber, causing his customer – a novelty toy salesman – to flee. He ends up in a bar where he’s joined by his partner, crybaby Jonathan. In the bar, a deaf man remembers a time sixty years ago when shots of aquavit were paid for with kisses. A portly flamenco teacher gropes her young male lead during rehearsal. Another ship’s captain arrives at a restaurant for a date only to find himself alone – convinced he must have got the date and time wrong. A couple caress on a beach, observed by a pet dog.
Fifteen years after beginning his trilogy with Songs From The Second Floor and then You The Living, Roy Andersson brings his dark oeuvre on the human condition to a close. Made up of unflinching tableaux of ordinary, colourless Swedes caught up in the miserable grind of living, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is a dark comedy of human relations not too far removed from compatriot Ruben Östlund’s Play or Force Majeure, only without the moral handwringing or the modern, satirical edge. In its place, Andersson delivers a playful, timeless outpouring on human existence – as like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal his characters meet with death, but all scored here to cheerful incidental music. And while Pigeon functions mostly on a philosophical plane – as attendees at a bus stop question the nature of time and whether it feels like Wednesday or Thursday, it’s not entirely apolitical – as a cosplay King of Sweden is met with both indifference and then uncontrollable grief when he enters an industrial-looking bar, or as Europe’s colonial history is examined with a barrel of black slaves set turning by the fires of pain.
And while there’s an enjoyable collision of worlds, as one scene plays out over another (the dance teacher is dumped by her student behind the restaurant’s glass window while the ship’s captain telephones his date to find out if he’s got the wrong time), it’s music that seems to thread Roy Andersson’s wildly and wonderfully diverse Pigeon together. Both the barwoman’s operatic invitation to drink a shot and the King’s army marching song are set to the tune of ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory’ while Jonathan listens to sad songs from the Roaring Twenties and the bar plays jive hits where only the wurlitzer is missing. It’s a cacophony of snippets from different ages and perspectives resonating together in unexpected universal harmony. But more than that it’s also life’s score – a nostalgic chorus of emotional and passionate moments, bringing the drabness of existence rousingly to life.
Of course, Roy Andersson’s aesthetic is nothing new, but with its intricately composed stage sets and the actors’ white greasepaint masks, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is purposefully theatrical. The characters even talk occasionally to camera, explaining their backstory or giving voice to their happy mood, only to be ridiculed by a cheeky colleague. Like the joke-pedlar Jonathan, all Andersson wants to do with his black comedy is make people happy. But when the director’s stand-in imagines a hideous, horrible phantasm – a grotesque but strangely real dream of a colonial barrel of slaves watched by a decrepit, champagne-swilling Establishment – the metafiction is exposed; is it right to use people for pleasure? Whether Andersson is reflecting on politics, his characters or his audience, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is all the same a grimly handsome, infernally clever, surprisingly inventive and sometimes even a strangely pleasurable affair.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence is released on 24th April 2015 in the UK