A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) — Image via royandersson.com

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Directed by Roy Andersson (2014)

Having not seen the first two films in director Roy Andersson’s The Living Trilogy, I cannot comment on whether he is, as some critics claim, merely repeating himself in the third entry, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron), which received four screenings this weekend at the Walker Art Center. What I can say is that, over the course of the film’s 100 minutes, its whole proves to be much greater than the sum of its parts.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) — Image via royandersson.comThe parts in question are 39 scenes filmed in the style of tableaus or dioramas — wide shots captured with an almost entirely stationary camera. Set in the poor and working-class districts of the coastal city of Gothenburg, Sweden, most of these scenes are dominated by drab, faded gray and brown backgrounds against which nonprofessional actors play out scenarios ranging from the mundane to the dreamlike, but always in a stiff, deadpan fashion. Almost all of the actors wear white makeup that situates them somewhere between clown and corpse. All of these features are, apparently, characteristic of Andersson’s oeuvre since his 1991 short World of Glory (Härlig är jorden).

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) — Image via royandersson.comWhat is most interesting about A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, however, is the implied narrative that emerges piecemeal as we move from scene to scene. Our guides through this narrative are two dour salesmen, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) who live in a flophouse and go from door to door, trying to sell novelty gag items to shop owners. Much like an old episode of Sesame Street, their adventures are the anchor around which seemingly unrelated stories are arrayed. Some of these stories are entirely self-contained in one scene, while others return once or twice. (Two of the more memorable scenes feature Sweden’s King Charles XII stopping by a modern-day dive bar on his way to and back from the disastrous 1709 Battle of Poltava.)

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) — Image via royandersson.comAt first, all of this comes across like a series of Monty Python sketches, and it is easy to simply laugh at the characters’ foibles. Eventually, however, the scenes start to evoke more complicated emotions, and one notices a clustering of themes. After a long stretch of defeat, humiliation, loneliness, and insincerity (typified by the catchphrase, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine”), compassion and connection temporarily gain the upper hand. Just as we are starting to feel better about the whole state of affairs, however, we are confronted with two of the film’s most disturbing scenes: one in which a primate is tortured for science, and another in which human beings are subjected to a horrific atrocity in order to create art for the enjoyment of a group of wealthy onlookers. Everything after this takes the form of a sort of coda of resignation.

In interviews, Andersson is very quick to talk about the moral dimensions of his work. While his tableaus do not, individually, contain any striking insights, the manner in which, in sequence, they play on one’s thoughts and emotions does have a lingering moral resonance. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence may be frustrating at first, but the patient viewer will be rewarded in the end.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.