Sweden. Directed by Roy Andersson, 2014. Starring Holger Andersson, Nisse Vestblom. 101 minutes.
A man passes away in the cafeteria of a cruise ship; the counter jockey wonders what to do with the meal the dead man purchased but never had a chance to eat. A young girl prepares to recite a poem she learned, but her teacher only allows her to tell what the poem is about. A pair of salesmen confront their clients about their inability to pay, and are later taken to task by their own suppliers for the very same thing. What, exactly, is going on here?
Swedish director Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence bills itself up-front as “the last in a trilogy about being a human being.” (I’ve not seen the first two installments.) Andersson forgoes a conventional plot and narrative structure, instead presenting thirty-nine vignettes of varying length and mood. Some are simple (a man dies while straining to uncork a wine bottle), others are more complex (King Charles XII–of Sweden, one assumes–stops by a bar with his horsebound army while en route to a battle with a “sly Russian”), and others still seem so simple they could only be symbolic of something deeper (a man in a suit stands in a corporate boardroom, a gun in one hand, a phone in the other, telling the person on the other end “I’m glad to hear that you are fine”). Some are funny, some are sad, some are tragi-comic.
On the surface there’s very little obvious connecting tissue: while some characters recur (a flamenco-dancing couple, the aforementioned King Charles XII), the only ones who do so with any frequency are Sam (Nisse Vestblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), traveling salesmen who hawk novelty items such as plastic vampire fangs and “Uncle One-Tooth,” a rubber fright mask. They wander through the landscape somewhat aimlessly, a latter-day Vladimir and Estragon, sometimes at the center of the action, other times on the sidelines.
When one takes the individual segments in context, a unifying theme, if not exactly a pattern, emerges. Andersson adopts a distinctly theatrical style: notably, the camera never moves over the course of a vignette. While the stationary camera may read as boring when described, the visual compositions possess a stark beauty contrasting with the characters’ actions. Most of the ensemble wears a chalky white facepaint that makes them look almost like zombies (this is particularly pronounced in the opening segment). Intentionally Brechtian or not, this choice creates a remove between the audience and the characters: Andersson seems to want us to observe them from a distance, as they themselves appear to do.
His absurdist view of humankind takes on a distinctly negative tone, as illustrated by two shocking and difficult-to-watch segments late in the film. But through Sam and Jonathan, he expresses at least a little hope: while the latter recounts a thought (or perhaps a dream) in which an unspecified group of people (perhaps our species as a whole) refuses to submit for forgiveness. Given to fits of despondency, Jonathan’s sadness at the recounting of his story indicates that he sees the importance of repentance, even if he can’t quite bring himself to ask for it.
If you’ll forgive the pun, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a bit of an odd bird. It’s “art cinema” at its artiest, certainly not for everyone. But those in tune with the peculiar wavelength of its broadcasts will delight in it and treasure it, and find it deeply affecting, as I did.