Movie Reviews

Roy Andersson’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” is Not the Title of a New Fiona Apple Album

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Director: Roy Andersson | Written by: Roy Andersson
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Viktor Gyllenberg

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Swedish director Roy Andersson takes up the theme of “being a human being” with this meticulously crafted, dreamlike black comedy. Sam and Jonathan, a pair of hapless novelty salesman, take us on a kaleidoscopic tour of the human condition in reality and fantasy, unfolding in absurdist episodes: a sing-along at a 1940s beer hall, a randy flamenco teacher, a thirsty King Charles XII of Sweden en route to battle, and a diabolical metaphor for the horrors inflicted by European colonialism. It is a journey that unveils the beauty of single moments, the pettiness of others, life’s grandeur, and the humor and tragedy hidden within us all.

 

Thanks to a little pre-viewing research (from Mike D’Angelo here, Armond White there, and this Wikipedia entry), Roy Andersson instantly became one of my favorite directors working–all the more likable because I had not yet seen a single one of his films. His newest, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is the end to his trilogy about “being human.” I didn’t see the other two films, but if their anything like A Pigeon–using comedy and philosophy as a lubricant for provocation.

 

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A pair of traveling salesmen selling novelty items is the closest thing we have to recurring characters. Their tales to turn into a saga, the jokes melting away as their sad lives turn less funny by the vignette. With a bevy of characters to torture, Andersson takes pleasure in long grueling takes. But the truth is it gives our eyes and minds independency from the action, free to think about and look at whatever. It is refreshing for a comedy, especially considering the stuff I grew up on (notably a VHS copy of National Lampoon’s Senior Trip).

 

One vignette—a man dies while opening a bottle of wine, his wife with her back to him, slicing vegetables for yet another meal together—is set in a tiny dining room. The stark lighting, bare walls and stiff looking furniture–an adult-size dollhouse–comes alive by the addition of an open window revealing a snowfall. It’s like were looking through the little hatch of an Alexander Payne inspired Advent calendar; a quaint illustration of deep misery.

 

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The mood takes manic swings in A Pigeon. In very short interludes—a woman playing with a baby, a couple lying on the beach with their dog—Andersson offers an apology by way of sentimentality. It doesn’t serve any purpose outside of easing our potential discomfort; relief from a bitter onslaught of cynicism.Then again, we don’t gain much from the grand gestures of pessimism, either. Slaves being tortured is hardly ever good for comedy, though one of Andersson’s vignettes does its best to try and disprove so.  

 

Monty Python made a movie called The Meaning of Life–comedy can be heady stuff. But when it dawns on Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels that making people laugh is its own virtuous pursuit–soothing the soul by taking attention away from the pains of existence–well then we’re really doing something to solve the problem of existence. This brings me to what’s most important: is A Pigeon funny or not? The answer for me: not really, but it has its moments. Like, for example, my favorite part, the opening skit—a man in a museum stares at an exhibit of a pigeon on a branch. Nothing happens for a while and then he leaves. I couldn’t contain myself. He just looks so stupid staring at the thing.

 

I Give A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
5 out of 10

 

 

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