For a film obsessed with death, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence has a surprising amount of life running through its veins. Roy Andersson’s Golden Lion-winner is a work of challenging yet accessible art that can’t be – ahem – pigeonholed.
Inter-titles such as ‘A Meeting with Death’ introduce us to A Pigeon…’s expansive structure, where crushing morbidity fuels the blackest of humour. Pitch-perfect sight gags and acutely designed performances play out in front of stilted camera angles, all from the height of a stuffed pigeon sat on a branch that we’re introduced to in the first scene. Yet terms such as ‘scene’ or even ‘plot’ don’t do justice in describing this incredible movie’s MO, which drops convention in the stead of a portmanteau of observed sequences, each one hilarious, profound and saddening on differing levels, where characters criss-cross through each other’s lives at random, and time lines have no boundaries. At one point, even Charles XII pops up for a quick drink.
A Pigeon… is what would happen if Tati’s Playtime saw Mr. Hulot wander through an artificial pastel-pale city, and meet many people of different backgrounds, each one playing a huge game of existential charades. Many of them repeat the line ‘I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine’ throughout, a mantra that digs right to the heart of Andersson’s unique vision. While these characters – of who a pair of travelling salesman, trying to flog their tired joke-shop artefacts, are the closest the picture has to protagonists – may be slathered in pale make-up, bearing the appearance of being close to death, they are brimming with life, their hearts complex mysteries; one even dreams of an instrument of almost unimaginable savagery that produces the most beautiful music heard by human ears, in one standout sequence.
This is a comedy of human errors; the static, surreal nature of its frames throwing its images on-screen as paintings that have a life of their own. The movie describes itself best at its beginning: a simple inter-title reads ‘the final film in a trilogy about being a human being.’ Let’s hope for a new trilogy.