‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’: Venice Review

Roy Andersson Filmproduktion AB
Roy Andersson's quirky reflections on modern life are strangely memorable and resonant, often delightful though rarely laugh-out-loud funny

Swedish perfectionist Roy Andersson concludes his trilogy about the quiet desperation of human beings with his typical laid-back humor

Billed as the final part of Roy Andersson’s quirky, award-winning trilogy “on being human”, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’ (En duva satt pa en gren och funderade pa tillvaron) packs much of the same laid-back humor as its predecessors, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living. The common theme of the three films is, indeed, human life in its many variations using dozens of characters in 39 skit-like episodes. Though it abounds in the kind of sardonic humor intrinsic to life’s absurdities, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. In a nutshell, quiet desperation prevails. Its main audience will be fans of the esteemed, slow-working Swedish director who will find more to mull on here.  Probably, this carefully crafted work will have a harder time connecting than, say, the strident, deliberately offensive peeks Ulrich Seidl offers into the Austrian soul. The Swedish soul is evidently a lot tamer, and Andersson’s work far more introspective and genteel.

That Andersson is a stylistic perfectionist is evident from the first shots, where off-white Nordic sets rhyme with white clown makeup on the actors’ faces. In a short prelude in a natural history museum, a man examines stuffed birds in glass cages, while a dinosaur peeps out from the next room. This suggests the long view that the writer-director is about to bring to his examination of human beings.

Death is the theme of the three opening skits, which take place in a living room, a hospital and aboard a ferry boat, all shot with the morgue-like pallor that colors Andersson’s low-key black humor. Other vignettes emphasize the solitude of lonely drinkers in bars, the financial crisis many people are going through, the trite impersonality of phone calls and their tiresomely repeated phrase, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine,” which gets on the nerves after a while.

The most often-seen characters are two lugubrious vendors of novelty products, who go door-to-door peddling absurd products like vampire teeth and a grotesque mask, which sad sack Jonathan morosely demonstrates to potential clients. Their mission is to “help people have fun.” Sales are zilch, however, and they are in debt to their suppliers, who threaten them in the prison-like boarding house where they live. These sketches of two down-and-outers aren’t so much funny as respectful and compassionate: the two men quarrel and make up, because all they have is each other.  

A delightful skit involves Sweden’s 18th century King Charles XII.  He is on his way to the disastrous battle of Poltava when he suddenly feels thirsty. His guards clear all the women and gamblers out of an astonished 21st century bar on the outskirts of the city so the young King can enter. Unexpectedly, he propositions a cute barman as his marching army sings a war song.

The film winds up with a section called “Homo sapiens”, introduced in a hideously funny scene of a monkey being tortured in a lab while a scientist chats on her cell phone. This is the goose bumpy-prelude to the film’s unforgettable set piece inspired by Europe’s colonial past. A giant copper drum studded with brass loudspeakers is suspended over a huge pit. Soldiers in khaki and pith helmets herd African slaves in chains, including women and children, into the drum through a door. Then they light a blazing fire under it, which makes the infernal contraption turn as the occupants’ screams become music – entertainment – for the modern-day rich. It recalls the ending of Lisandro Alonso’s recent Jauja/Land of Plenty. The difference is that this gloomy reflection is just one part of Andersson’s wide view envisioning human life as a myriad of things good and bad, which includes young lovers on the beach and a mother tickling her baby in the park.   

The boxy, claustrophobic interiors always have a door open onto another hypothetical space. Like the empty, Edward Hopper-like streets, bars and restaurants, they are shot with maximum depth of field by ace cinematographers Istvan Borbas and Gergely Palos. The soundtrack makes clever use of waltzes flamenco, and traditional music.

Production companies: Roy Andersson Filmproduktion, 4 ½ Fiksjon, Essential Filmproduktion, Parisienne de Production, Swedish Television, Arte France Cinema, ZDF/ARte

Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson, Viktor Cyllengerg, Lotti Tornros, Jonas Gerholm, Ola Stensson, Oscar Salomonsson, Roger Olsen Likvern
Director-Screenwriter: Roy Andersson
Producer: Pernilla Sandstrom

Executive producers: Sarah Nagel, Isabell Wiegand
Directors of photography: Istvan Borbas, Gergely Palos
Production designers: Ulf Jonsson, Julia Tegsrom, Nicklas Nilsson, Sandra Parment, Isabel Sjostrand
Costume designer: Julia Tegstrom
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
No rating, 101 minutes

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