Something I love about foreign-language cinema (meaning films from countries other than the USA or United Kingdom) is the fact that it can be so brilliantly strange, bizarre and wonderful, and that it doesn’t need to stick to any conventions to be seen, which is something that keeps many original ideas from being made in the USA, because if the film doesn’t follow a set of cinematic conventions, it is thought to not have an audience. One of the most brilliantly original and absolutely remarkable films I’ve seen in a while is A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron), a offbeat, strange and absolutely wonderful dark comedy from the great Swedish cinematic poet Roy Andersson.
If you are looking for a film with a clear story, you should seek elsewhere, because A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is really void of a conventional story. Instead, it is a series of vignettes, that aren’t really related to each other, each taking place in a single moment in the lives of extraordinarily ordinary people going about their lives. Initially, the audience may be radically put off by the film, because at first, it seems like a pointless mess of a film, and the very definition of arthouse cinema, which might put many people off. However, as you delve deeper in the film, you discover that it is actually a wonderfully strange and entertaining film that never fails to leave you in awe.
Beneath the strange exterior, there lurks a fascinating and idiosyncratic story – two salesmen, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) peddle their wares to various people around their small Scandanavian town. The only problem is that they aren’t insurance salesmen, nor are they selling anything of use. Instead, they are selling novelty toys, of which they only have three – vampire teeth, a “laugh bag” and a mask that will surely give the audience nightmares, known as Uncle One-Tooth. They are unable to sell a single item throughout the entire film, which is both frustrating and hilarious, mainly because the two actors give suitably dedicated performances, and their pathetic characters are given an added layer of intrigue, as they truly believe their products are the best products that anyone can buy, and the fact that they think that they can actually make a living selling such pointless items is actually one of the best parts of the film – it doesn’t make sense, while making perfect sense at the same time. These two men give strangely dedicated performances that are very under-appreciated and wonderfully compelling, and being our main characters in this circus of a film is not an easy task, but both are incredible.
What makes A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence so interesting is how it is filmed. It is less of a film, and more a series of living paintings. Andersson stations the camera to view a scene, and within that constricted space, these stories take place. There are no complex camera angles or complicated cinematography tricks – just one stationary camera, where the actors and the dialogue are responsible for the progression of the story. The fact that we don’t see closeups of the actors prevent the audience from becoming engrossed in the emotions of the characters, so it becomes a cold and distant film, but not in a negative way, rather in the way that we are not manipulated to feel a particular way, but rather to see this film as a piece of art. Each scene could be considered a tableaux of sorts, where art comes to life and tells a story. It is wonderfully unique and something truly marvelous, and something that Roy Andersson does very well, through this film and the other two films in his “Living Trilogy”, which consists of Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is such a unique film, it actually frustrates one to consider who simple but original this film it. The opening titles claim this to be “a film about being a human being”, which is exactly what it is. There are many scenes that don’t make any sense – there is a lack of context or background to many scenes, and in a way, this is natural filmmaking – we are simply passive individuals, watching the lives of other individuals in an isolated space and time. Andersson offers almost none, or very little at most, background to the scenes, and the little context given is so scarce, we marvel at the beauty of the moment in time when we are part of these character’s lives instead of wondering about their pasts or their futures – the only aspect of their lives that we care about are the ones that are happening at that moment, in the present. It is a beautiful way of telling the various stories – which is, not telling them at all, but rather showing a moment or two from them. However, each scene feels like it is from a longer film dedicated to the particular characters in that tableaux, and even though many of these characters are contained in that one scene, they feel like they have such complex, rich histories that we wish to learn more about, but alas, as soon as we become invested in a particular character, it moves along to another story. It is frustratingly ingenious how Andersson manipulates narrative to create this film, and proves his unadulterated genius.
Do not be put off by this film’s arthouse sheen or foreign elitism – it is almost as vulgar as the most popular Hollywood blue humour comedies. It is clear that Andersson is an intelligent filmmaker, but also one that loves a slight bit of vulgarity and juvenile humour. It is never off-putting, nor is it glaringly obvious, but he is very good at putting in some strangely hilarious and very subtle crass humour into his films, which reflects the work of the great Japanese auteur and flatulence aficionado, Yasujirō Ozu. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is not only a wonderfully unique and meaningful meditation on humanity, but also a painfully hilarious look at human nature.
I adored A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. It is a slow-paced film, but one of those that doesn’t feel slow in the way that it drags, but rather as a series of wonderfully idiosyncratic and unique moments that reflect our very own existence. Frequently funny, wonderfully deep and heartbreakingly realistic, it is a magnificent film and quite possibly the best of the year. You will not find a more realistic depiction of humanity quite like A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and it deserves praise for its sheer brilliance in that regard. Bravo, Mr. Andersson.