Overview: A series of loosely connected vignettes ruminate drolly on the inhumane nature of humanity. Filmproduktion AB; 2015; Rated PG-13; 101 minutes.
Gazing into the Mirror: The film begins with a man, someone who has the blank gaze and slumped demeanor of what could be called an idiot, in some museum looking at dead animals in glass boxes. He looks confused, his brow furrowed and his eyes fixated on the once-living exhibits. This man, the idiot, is the audience; a stand-in for the whole of humanity. The man is gawking at the painstakingly constructed fruits of his race’s violent nature. As the film goes on, there are several scenes of human folly and destruction. The audience can do nothing but watchhelplessly as the scenes take place. Filmmaker Roy Andersson is essentially the museum director, putting this all into place, arranging the dead animals, so to speak, for everyone to see. He’s creating a mirror into which the audience can look at themselves. One of the earliest scenes (entitled “Encounter with Death Nr. 1”) shows an obese man attempting to open a bottle of wine. After some struggle, the man collapses to the floor, dead. His wife, oblivious, continues to hum and cook in the room adjacent to him. To Andersson, all of humanity might as well be doomed to a similar fate. In the end, everyone will be dying, unceremoniously, on the floor of their kitchen. He is making this film to guide the audience through the museum of what happens up to that final, mortal sigh on the kitchen floor while trying to open wine.
Stagnation: One of director Roy Andersson’s notable trademarks is his frequent use of the extended take. This is taken to the extreme in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Every scene involves the camera being placed in one particular spot in the immaculately constructed set and then letting the scene play out from there, without any movement or change of angle. After a while, this begins to grow almost tiresome, yet, one gets the impression that this feeling of weltschmerz is exactly what Andersson wants. The whole film is about dreary, depressive people who have grown apathetic in the grey drudgery of daily life. Two of the recurring characters in the film are novelty item salesmen named Jonathan and Sam. At one point they show up at some nameless bar, searching for a store entitled “Party,” that does not exist. Their struggle seems to reflect that of humanity’s: selling garbage no one wants, looking for an address that will never be found. Several characters in the film talk over the phone to phantom voices, saying “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” But no one is really happy and no one is doing fine. Everyone feels alienated and trapped behind the plastic wall of the telephone. The stagnation of the frame furthers this feeling of being stuck in the endlessness and dull pain of it all. Everything comes off as more absurd and remarkably odd when the takes are allowed to play out as they are.
Reflection: Watching the film, a quote from Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. It’s the most comical thing in the world.” There’s real pain in Andersson’s film, and it almost hurts to watch at times because of the inherent misery. But once one is able to push past that pain and depression, there is laughter to be found. It is a strange, absurd laughter, but it is laughter all the same. I remember being a small child, probably around five, and being informed of my grandmother’s passing. It didn’t hit me immediately, because being a young kid, I thought that, like a comic book character, my grandma could be easily resurrected. Death was merely an obstacle I had to figure out; I didn’t have to worry. I recall later on sitting with my family in our minivan as my mother and brother broke into tears. I cried too, but first I let out a strange, choked burst of laughter. It was then that I realized how stupid the idea of being able to bring my grandma back had been, and that thought, despite the sadness surrounding it, elicited a real laughter. It felt weird, but the most honest laughter always does. Only pain can bring about comedy like that, like Andersson has in his film. He is poking fun at how terrible people, and life in general can be, but he comes off less as callous than as a guy who really understands what he’s talking about: Life.
Overall: Though slow at times, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence triumphs as a thoroughly original and vividly interesting meditation on how terrible people are, while still maintaining a real pathos.
Featured Image: Filmproduktion AB