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Cinema || A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Swedish auteur Roy Andersson’s latest, after a reflective hiatus of seven years, is the concluding part of his “living”-trilogy, which had been preceded by ‘Songs from the Second Floor’ and ‘You, the Living’ respectively.

‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’ is a slow-burning, surrealistic existential diorama that is an extension of Andersson’s confessed investigation into the nature of life itself. Blurring past and present, Andersson’s long takes, static camera and intricate mise-en-scene present what is a deliciously confusing mix of characters, locations and situations which oscillate seamlessly from dark humour to an air of tragedy.

The show opens with three instances of death, the great constant in human existence, the most thought-provoking of which involve a heart failure in a cruise-ship cafeteria, right after the soon-to-be dead man orders and pays for a beer and a sandwich. As the onlookers gape at the tragedy, the question of who gets the food that has already been paid for is posited in what may very well be one of the most memorable sequences in world cinema.

The largely disconnected and ‘meaningless’ plot is driven forward by the two traveling salesmen Sam (Nisse Vestblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson) who deal in novelty articles that is supposed to bring joy and a smile to faces, namely sets of vampire teeth (with extra long fangs), a laughing bag and a mask of ‘Uncle One-Tooth’, which is grotesque enough to scare a poor woman to bits. The fallout, dejection and overall sorrow in the life of the two men who peddle joy is almost reminiscent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, their tedious life and the slow, philosophical breakdown of Jonathan a glaring reminder of the futilities galore in a given lifetime.

The past is woven into the collage with the 17th century warrior king Charles XII’s war tune, which at once depicts a pub during the second Great War and the time of unnerving Swedish neutrality, where the lady of the house is offering a shot each in exchange of a kiss, while the same tune follows in the background as Charles XII himself presents at an identical, modern day watering hole for a glass of ‘water’ as he recruits a handsome young man for the battlefield where he gets the privilege of sharing the King’s tent!

The defeated return sees the king and his men at their worst, as he enters the same pub for a visit to the toilet, only to find that the restroom is occupied. The women sitting around are intimidated that their husbands have died in the war and hence they would be given the gift of a widow’s veil.

The monotony of life, the certainty of death and the apathy that we hold towards it is ingeniously dealt with in the tableaux where a makeshift smelting furnace with the insignia of ‘Boliden’ (A reference to a Swedish mining and smelting corporation with a shady history) is seen to take in real people (led, conspicuously, by English speaking officers) instead of the precursory metal ore, while a group of visibly well-off individuals witness the scene from a distance, sipping on champagne.

It is fruitless to find any ‘wholesome meaning’ in a brush work dealing with the appalling absurdity of life and the suddenness of death.

Andersson attempts to piece together a bird’s eye view of life that has conveniently confused (as a child in the film narrate what a pigeon on a branch may be musing upon) existence with ‘money’.

A solitary take of two lovers on a beach along with their pet dog is perhaps the solitary symbol of hope sewn into the narrative.

Andersson’s film is a view from inside a glass box, like that in a museum in the very first shot where a stuffed pigeon rests, as he attempts to make sense of a world via characters that are visible, but are always too far from the screen to get a proper glimpse of, not unlike the way we tend to function in today’s world, meaninglessly mouthing without a shred of conviction: ‘It’s good to hear that you’re doing well…’ []

Film: A Pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on Existence
Written and directed by Roy Andersson
Year: 2014
Language: Swedish, English

First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015