A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

We knew of Swedish director Roy Andersson's maniacally detailed, blink-and-you'll-miss-it slow-motion existential burlesque from the two previous films in the so-called "Trilogy of the Living" - 2000's Songs from the Second Floor and 2007's You, the Living. Going into this third and final instalment, it's worth pointing out how much of an acquired taste Mr. Andersson's style is; the very epitome of what has been, somewhat derisively, described as "slow cinema" with its existential concerns, oblique narratives and formalist structures, the fact is the Swedish helmer's films are also often extremely funny and never wilfully obscure, even if what they seem to be building towards may prove to be just out of reach.

     To sum up: each film is composed of thematically-linked but apparently unrelated sketches, nonsensical and melancholy, minutely controlled tableaux staging those little nagging annoyances we struggle with daily that eventually blow up into full-fledged crises, carrying the unmistakable smell of "loserdom", the daily and almost futile struggle to make something out of nothing and improve one's lot through patient work. Though formally A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence brings nothing new to the director's by now equally unmistakable and admirable formal stylings, impeccably framed and held as ever, the new film lets in some fresh air, some hope in his often claustrophobic, inescapable world.

     There are, for the first time in the entire trilogy, expressions of regret, remorse, hope, kindness; scenes of love and simple pleasure that surround what is the strongest narrative throughline of the three films, the misadventures of Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), disheartened salesmen of comic novelties who face the dank greyness of humdrum city life. Around these sad clowns, and against their desperate and yet often very funny struggles, Mr. Andersson places small, dialogue-less glimpses of love and happiness; their wanderings are the gravitational centre of the film's loosely connected tableaux, with everything else radiating from them through tangents or contiguities, underlining the film's central theme as the ultimate nature of human relationships.

     This is perfectly made out in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch's two tours-de-force: the nightmare scene of the "fire drum organ", and its follow-up dialogue between Sam and Jonathan, and the episode where, while stopping at a cafe for directions, the two salesmen witness 18th-century Swedish king Carl XII storm in on his way to a campaign that will prove disastrous. Both grab at the key idea of a diseased society that feeds and preys on its young and on the "other" to keep itself afloat (I couldn't help but see some shades of Göran Olsson's Concerning Violence, though the films couldn't be more different), but also question whether the naked, opportunistic exploitation of capitalism is the only possible engine for survival (the film seems to suggest that the patience required for the basic need for human contact is there if you only become attentive enough to it).

     Yet, despite A Pigeon Sat on a Branch seeming to be just "another Roy Andersson movie", behind the stellar visuals and technical mastery visible throughout, there definitely is a more hopeful, less despairing tone than in the previous films, a slightly stronger uplift that brings Mr. Andersson closer to the bonhomie of silent burlesque comedy and especially of his formal master that is Jacques Tati, where the payoff of the patient technical layering of gags and scene-setting is never just what we think it is. The director is, for sure, an acquired taste; for those who've already acquired it there's more to enjoy, for those who haven't this may actually be the strongest, smartest entry point.

Sweden, Norway, Germany, France, 2014
100 minutes
Cast Nils Westblom, Holger Andersson
Director and screenwriter Roy Andersson; cinematographers István Borbás and Gergely Pálos (colour); designers Ulf Jonsson, Julia Tegström, Nicklas Nilsson, Sandra Parment and Isabel Sjöstrand; costumes Ms. Tegström; editor Alexandra Strauss; producer Pernilla Sandström; production companies Roy Andersson Filmproduktion in co-production with 4 1/2 Fiksjon, Essential Filmproduktion, Parisienne de Production, Swedish Television, ARTE France Cinéma and ZDF/ARTE
screened June 18th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, distributor press screening


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