A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence

UK Release Date 24th April 2015
Director Roy Andersson
Starring Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom
Runtime 140 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 30th April 2015

It’s hard to explain the feeling I had after watching A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence (hereby known as Pigeon). It is the last part of the Swedish director Roy Andersson’s Living Trilogy that he began fifteen years ago with A Swedish Love Story and Life on The Second Floor (which I have no yet seen). It’s the most strange viewing experience I’ve had in some time, maybe ever, yet it was also hugely affecting and presented me with images that will replay in my mind for quite some time and it is VERY funny. It’s surrealism, it’s immersing. It is humour, it is humanity, it is life. It made me laugh a lot and cry a bit and it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. 

It seems ridiculous to try and ‘review’ something as indefinable as Pigeon. There definitely isn’t a box or genre for it. I’m sure there are subtexts I probably didn’t grasp or make sense of but that doesn’t matter for this is an intoxicating world where the strange is commonplace and we have to let the bizarre unfold and mist around us. Trying to ‘review' Pigeon would be like trying to ‘review’ that Vice interview where they sent a journalist on acid to interview Danny Dyer: Pointless.  

A series of hypnogogic sketches, for want of a better word – (sketches not hypnogogic, that is truly an excellent word), about the tragedy and absurdity of human nature. Characters bleed into other sketches and it somehow manages to all flow together without feeling disjointed. Andersson has famously been called a ‘slapstick Ingmar Bergman’. Even the most drab of scenes take on a mesmerising visage, the overriding palate of greyish greens, the stillness constantly bringing us back to painting and painters. Hopper sprang to mind, as did Breughel and an American photographer’s series called Understanding Joshua. The depth of field is astonishing

The two most consistent characters in Pigeon are bickering middle-aged practical joke salesmen Jonathan and Sam. Down on their luck, trying to sell or recoup money from sales. These two couldn’t look less like joke salesmen and the absolute deadpan delivery of the demonstration of their wares is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while, they are heartbreaking clowns in the most old fashioned sense of clowning. Theirs is a strange heartbreaking but also uplifting union. 

Interspersed with the sadness and brutality of humans are tender vignettes of lovers. Moments of tenderness and affection. This is reality at it’s most unreal. Anderssons subjects are not high fliers but those scrabbling around on the outskirts of society, those who experience and reflect the worst of humanity and it’s cruel nature; the absurdity of life.. Often the action that is going on in the background, the sideline is as detailed as the action that is centre stage. “I’m happy to hear that you’re doing fine” different characters intone into their mobile phones whilst in the midst of varying degrees of depressing scenarios; one, a lab technician looking out the window and talking whilst a monkey is electrocuted. Pigeon tackles with the way humans are desensitised to death, a man dies in a restaurant and the debate of what to do with the beer and crab sandwich he has already paid for takes place literally over his dead body.

Characters are often speaking and being ignored, disregarded, talking about the hardships in their lives whilst people go about their own business, not caring. One man has a life changing realisation while he sits in the bar, the staff tidying away chairs as he recites his enlightening monologue. No one is listening, no one cares.  Loneliness is a modern way of life, more than one character checks their phone to hear that they have no messages. Life cruelly goes on around them whilst theirs is empty. 

Through Andersson’s lens nothing is wasted, every corner of frame holds something interesting, a story of its own. Sometimes the action in the foreground belies the fact that the real story is in the background. A boring phone conversation centre stage whilst a couple passionately argue in the window of a restaurant. It’s a compelling execution. The entire cast is wonderful but Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom are stunning as Jonathan and Sam. 

At one point our salesmen are lost as suddenly a young King Charles XIII of Sweden comes in on horseback, orders out the women and hits on the young barman. A scene of a woman with a baby in a park is a feast for the eyes but I am clueless as to what it means in terms of the story. Then we flashback to 1943 and Limping Lotte’s bar in Gothenburg where Andersson tips the surrealist scales and engages us in a version of Glory Hallelujah as men queue up to kiss the patroness in order to receive their alcohol. Glory Hallelujah is used again as a battle song by King Charles’ wounded beaten soldiers when they are defeated by the Russian. 

As we approach the end Andersson presents us with a darker tone. Slaves, including children, are loaded into a horrifying metal drum contraption. The metal drum has the words Boliden written on it, a Swedish mining company. As the drum turns old, grotesque rich, white people look on and drink champagne served by Jonathon. Either a memory or a dream it is part of Jonathan and explains some of his sadness. It’s a sinister and unsettling image that brought tears to my eyes. 

In Short:

“Why should we care about one another?” This was the slogan of Sweden’s Socialdemokraterna party when Roy Andersson directed their commercials in the 1980s and this is a good summation of A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence. Andersson’s humanity can be cruel, is bizarre and oh so surreal. Jonathan says to Sam as he apologises for being mean, ‘we must be together’. It’s a beautiful scene, two middle aged men separated by a flimsy door in a crappy hostel, trying to save their relationship. Despite all the cruelty and loneliness there is light and there is love. The film begins with a sad figure of a man looking at a stuffed pigeon sat on a branch in glass case in a museum. It ends with what feels like a pigeon looking at humans at a bus stop as life trundles on, and it’s Wednesday again. Andersson’s world is one of the strangest I’ve delved into but it’s also one of the most affecting. An enthralling way to spend 140 minutes. Do try and see it, one thing is for sure, you’ll never forget it.

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