Seven years after You, the Living, which itself came seven years after Songs from the Second Floor, the revered Swedish director Roy Andersson delivers the final film in his “Living Trilogy”, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. For those familiar with either of its forebears, Pigeon is more of the same. It is 100 minutes of deftly composed black comic vignettes, each detailing an indignity upon a loosely connected group of people. Critics like to relish in the depictions of capitalistic foibles and other vaguely political themes. Andersson himself claims the film was inspired by a 16th century painting. One’s enjoyment of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence may depend on how much you are willing to believe that.
What ostensible plot the film has surrounds the daily humdrummery of a pair of novelty salesmen, who bicker all day while trying to interest people in fake vampire teeth. They are a surrogate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, cropping up in different locales to give Andersson some semblance of continuity. But really the “story” is just another excuse for him to thread together a series of bleak sketches. These are not characters, they are wax figures in the diorama of a sadistic god. Andersson just powders them up, poses them, and unleashes his id.
The film isn’t reliably absurd enough to be funny nor is it clever enough to be consistently interesting. Therefore the best moments are the melancholic ones, the stories that dig a little deeper. There is an old man that sits in the same dreary bar day after day. A flashback reveals that he was there decades before when the establishment was much livelier and all of the men lined up to kiss the bartender. Cut back to present day where the lighting is different, much harsher than the warm nighttime glow of the past. The old man shuffles out the door after another night of drinking alone. The waitresses wish him good night. He’s too deaf to hear them. These are the moments that linger after the credits roll.
Andersson’s greatest strength will always be his images. He is undeniably a compositional wizard. His camera is almost always static, sitting in one perfectly calibrated spot, a location that allows for hidden elements to creep out of the background as a scene plays on. He is also adept at utilizing huge crowds of extras. An example of both strengths comes when an antiquated army marches incongruously outside a modern cafe as their royal leader dismounts from his horse indoors to proposition a barkeep. The procession of people recalls the flagellating business folk in Songs from the Second Floor.
The best sequence in Pigeon is the most morbid and extravagant. Luckily, it also serves as the haunting climax. It takes place as a dream of one of the salesmen and utilizes CGI, a relative rarity for Andersson. The scene presents a truly horrifying — yet utterly fascinating — tableau of the rich and their vindictive amusements. It’s a little like a car crash, stomach-churning in its content but we simply cannot look away. In a way the scene feels like the culmination of Andersson’s work. If it was its own short film it would be powerful and profound. And that’s where the problem lies with Pigeon and its predecessors. They spark with periodic glimmers of brilliance but we must wade through the muck of modern mundanity to find it.
(A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence plays at the Northwest Film Forum July 17-23)