I had heard Swedish director Roy Andersson’s movies were great, I just didn’t know in what way. Cinema is more than a hundred years old. Its influence looms so strongly over our culture that virtually all movies now are post-modern, even if the director didn’t intend them to be. We still have great directors, and we still have great movies, but one can easily see where every contemporary cinematic genius is coming from. So, what surprised me the most about A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is that I couldn’t figure out where Roy Andersson was coming from. There are obviously cinematic influences in Andersson’s style (silent comedy being the clearest example), but while I could recognize some of the ingredients, the final result was something unique. Something I hadn’t ever seen before.
Although, to be clear, quite a few cinephiles had seen something like this before. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch follows Andersson’s last two movies Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007) and is “the final part of a trilogy on being a human being.” If you’re wondering why it took him almost fifteen years to finish this trilogy, it’s because every shot in an Andersson movie must be thoroughly choreographed and rehearsed. You see, his filmmaking style shouldn’t really work. Basically, he sets up a stationary camera and has each scene unfold in a long take. It’s a little bit theatrical, yes, but it’s also one of the clearest interpretations of cinema as a “moving picture.” Watching A Pigeon Sat on a Branch is in no small part like going to a museum and seeing an intrinsically designed diorama come to life and start moving. It’s such an appropriate comparison that the movie itself opens with an elderly couple looking at taxidermied birds in a museum.
Now, the thing you might have not gotten from my description of Andersson’s style, is just how funny it can be. Every scene starts out as a perfectly bland piece of daily life, but quickly turns towards the ridiculous, or the surreal. The best thing about Andersson style of filmmaking, is that he knows how to put it to good use. He has basically found the perfect method to make a movie out of a philosophy. What exactly he is trying to say is not so easy to say, but it is clear that he is saying something. After all, the movie is made up of bittersweet vignettes that can be as pathetic as they are heartwarming. However, one theme becomes pretty clear after watching the movie: Like its title suggests, this is a movie about self-reflexivity, and about humanity’s ability to recognize that they are a human being. Not a modest subject for a movie, but one that Andersson pulls off wonderfully.
There is little plot to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, which follows different characters in many different situations, but if the movie has something close to a protagonist, it would be a duo of pathetic salesmen played by Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom. They go around trying to sell novelty items. Vampire fangs and laughing bags. “We just want to help the world have fun” says one of them, stone-faced, as they try to make a sell. They are so pale and static that they look more like corpses than human beings. All characters, in fact, look a lot like pale corpses.
Being an existential filmmaker, it only makes sense that Andersson would be obsessed with death. But don’t let that obsession fool you. Andersson strikes me as quite an optimist. Sure, the life of his characters might be meaningless, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth living. For every pathetic moment in the movie, there is a beautifully moving one. Sometimes, they are one and the same. Quite often, the mundane and the ridiculous collide, only nobody seems to care. Towards the end of the film, one of the characters has an epiphany. He is hunted by a vision. He need answers. Is there absolute right and wrong in this world? His question remains unanswered, because it’s the middle of the night and his neighbors are trying to sleep. Mundane, meaningless life goes uninterrupted. Is A Pigeon Sat on a Branch a wake-up call? I don’t know, but a wake-up call has never been this delightful.
Grade: 9 out of 10