Thursday, June 25, 2015

New movie review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom sell their wares in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Two salesmen traipse about shilling novelty goods from their briefcases. A dance instructor’s advances are rebuffed by her young, handsome student. A military man tries and fails to attend a seminar. The king of Sweden wages war on a Russian tyrant. A couple lounges on the beach. Another couple stares out the window. Three people die in the middle of mundane tasks. Just out of our view, of course, a pigeon sits on a branch.

If you cannot tell what you are in for by the title alone, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is more than happy to hammer home its weirdness in a series of absurdist, serio-comic tableaus. It is a strange work, to be sure, but it is also a masterful piece of heart and humanism, unique in a cinema landscape that often has little time or place for real people.

Henry David Thoreau said in Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Andersson has taken that now-clich├ęd idea and extended it to a feature film about desperate men, women, children, monarchs, and monkeys. There is much humor to be found in the film – again, anyone who would burden his film with such a cumbersome title must have a sense of humor, as well as a hell of a lot of confidence – but it is all shrouded in a general air of dissatisfaction and despair.

There is no plot, per se, rather the film acts like a buffet of life. We pick up a story thread, follow it for a bit, put it down for a while, and try the next one. Maybe we will come back to it, and maybe we will not. At the end, nothing is finished, but there is satisfaction in exploring so many different options. Because this is a film about life as it is lived, there would be no way for Andersson to encompass all of that. Instead, he smartly carries us in and out of the experiences of a variety of people.

You can't take it with you.
Andersson opens the film with three vignettes titled “Meeting with Death Nos. 1-3.”

Meeting with Death No. 1: A man has a heart attack while opening a bottle of wine. His wife is cooking in the kitchen and does not hear his struggle or notice his demise. She may be in the background of the frame, but her husband is in the background of her story.

Meeting with Death No. 2: A dying woman wishes to take her favorite handbag to heaven with her. One of her sons tries to pry it from her hands, insisting she cannot take it with her and refusing to leave it unguarded at the hospital since it contains valuable family heirlooms. Regardless of the mother’s cries, her adult children will not have a mother when she dies, but at least they can have her jewels.

Meeting with Death No. 3: A man dies in the lunch line on a cruise ship after he has already paid for his meal. The staff offers the meal for free to any of the other passengers, and one man steps forward to take the beer. Life goes on.

The thesis of the film seems to be: We are all background players in someone else’s story. No matter what is happening in our own lives, something of equal import is happening in the lives of others. At its core, it is a beautiful message. The culture at large tells us each one of us is special or that we can take steps to become special. Andersson argues it is life itself that is special. Our individual stories mean little against the simple glory of existence.

The salesmen, Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), are a bit like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the film, acting as functionaries in the larger tale of humanity. They hover on the edges of the story, peddling their wares when they see an opportunity but mostly just observing. Sam is bitter about his life, while Jonathan is more philosophical. Jonathan sees the comedy and tragedy unfolding all around him, and sometimes he is so overwhelmed he breaks down in tears.

Late in the film, he is listening to a record alone in his room, and he becomes obsessed with the ending, picking up the needle and replacing it to the same part over and over. Sam asks what is wrong, and Jonathan tells him about the song, of which he says: “It’s so beautiful but horribly sad, too.” The entire film is summed up in this line.

Sam and Jonathan travel around trying to make people happy, as they claim, selling items such as extra-long vampire teeth, a laugh bag, and a hideous but endearing mask they call Uncle One-Tooth. However, they do not inhabit a universe of joy. One woman screams and runs away in terror at the sight of the mask. One shop that has accepted their goods cannot afford to keep them. They are offering whimsy in a world that knows nothing but war and atrocity. Sam lashes out in anger, while Jonathan collapses in sadness. Neither reaction is unwarranted.


As all of this unfolds, Andersson’s camera never moves. He simply sets it down and allows the sorrow and pain to become evident, even if it is only clear to us as observers. Of course, it is not all sadness because life is not all sadness. Relief can be found in the margins, in the quiet moments of peace we share with our loved ones or the simple novelty of another day coming and going. These pleasures may be few and far between, but A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence seems to argue the elusiveness of happiness is not what is heartbreaking but that when we capture it, it cannot last.

See it? Yes.

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