Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence initially seems to take its title rather literally: a man stands in the midst of glass display cases in some sort of natural history museum, musing on the taxidermy contained within. But the title is actually inspired by Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow, in which pigeons perch above the heads of the men below. The birds are observers, here reflecting on the characters whose lives are laid bare throughout the series of vignettes that comprise the final film in Andersson’s trilogy, which began with Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living.
Our introduction to the pigeon aside, the film begins at the end, with a few scenes concerned with mortality, poking fun at some of the absurdities endured by both the victim and their remaining loved – or unloved – ones. They are some of the mostly blackly humorous vignettes in the film, before it trains its eye again on the living, and the moments that make up day-to-day existence – and, in the big picture, humanity itself. But for Andersson, there is little sentimentality; rather life is surreal yet banal, at times painful and unfulfilling. Mercifully, this bleakness is often relieved by the subtlety of his humour, which permeates the film.
If Pigeon has protagonists, it is the two travelling salesmen who peddle their outdated and unwanted novelty items from a beaten-up suitcase. They are tragic, morose figures, whose paths intersect with those of other unhappy souls, most surreally with that of the young King Charles XII, who is on his way to the Russian front. There is a flamenco teacher in love with her much younger student; an official-looking man with a briefcase, who waits in vain for a meeting that never seems to occur; an elderly, deaf man who sits by himself in a bar, drinking vodka, reliving the past (cue a surprising musical number). Themes are threaded through the vignettes, with snatches of dialogue repeated by different characters in different situations, suggesting a common humanity regardless of circumstance. There are ever more absurd, puzzling and sometimes perplexing and disturbing moments; in a mere 90 minutes, Andersson covers the gamut of human emotions, distilling them into their basest forms.
The vignettes are framed as tableaux, the stationary camera forcing the audience to observe events at a distance, rather than allowing viewers to form any kind of closer connection with the players on the screen. The actors, powder thick on their faces, have a deathly pallor. Everything is washed out, creating a strange world infused with a limited, 70s-like palette. Though Andersson probes the intimate elements of his characters’ lives, he does so at a physical remove that can become frustratingly alienating.
With so many vignettes, it’s perhaps inevitable that there are the occasional mundane moments. Still, Andersson’s distinct way of looking at the world is undeniably unique, wistful, thoughtful and provocative.
Watch the trailer: