How to sum up this Golden Lion-winning film by Roy Andersson, the celebrated Swedish filmmaker responsible for A Swedish Love Story, Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living? It is barely categorisable but I guess it can be defined broadly as a dark comedy-drama, given that it has elements of both. There are only bare threads of plot as some characters move from one of a series of vignettes to another, and there are surreal moments that genuinely surprise, while the director picks up ideas and characters and then drops them immediately (and indeed ends his film with a scene of people outside a bicycle repair shop debating whether it is Wednesday or Thursday who we haven’t actually seen up until that point). The whole thing is like a restless night’s worth of disturbing dreams condensed into a hundred minutes: there is some sense, and there is some nonsense too, but one thing is certain: it looks as good as anything I’ve seen this year.
Interestingly, the cinema I saw this in showed several of Andersson’s Swedish TV adverts from the 1970s and 1980s before the trailers, made for the national lottery, a car insurance firm, the Social Democrat Party and more. They all bore his trademark style: striking and meticulously set-up tableaux vivants in which the characters appear as downtrodden butts of life’s ongoing and varied jokes. The actors – usually non-professionals – are made-up to look pasty-faced and unhealthy, are dressed in a kind of anti-fashion way that refuses to acknowledge changing styles, and are taught to block like experts of the stage by the director. Usually there’s an element of schadenfreude to be had at their expense, while there’s a washed-out, nauseous hue applied to everything that makes it look as though Andersson has soaked his reels in custard or a watery pea soup for 48 hours.
The general look of these adverts, some 30 or 40 years old, has been applied by Andersson to his feature films, and thus also to the series of vignettes making up A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Exisistence. Like Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living, the two earlier films in the director’s ‘human’ trilogy, they are all filmed using a fixed, deadpan camera and were mainly shot in Studio 24, the director’s own studio in Stockholm (though there are some external scenes … with grey, milky skies). As for the content? Generally we follow two novelty joke salesmen (Nisse Vestblom and Holger Andersson) with hangdog expressions as they try to eke out a living selling the mere three items in their suitcase: vampire’s teeth, a bag that generates fake laughter and a new line of grotesque masks called ‘Uncle One-tooth’. Your enjoyment of this film will probably depend on a) how much you like to watch movies that are aesthetically-pleasing and b) whether you find the idea of two sad, miserable men claiming to be ‘in the entertainment business’ and trying to sell fake laughter is inherently funny or not. There is much more to it than that, but I think that adequately covers the kind of humour on offer.
Those two salesmen come and go regularly, but there’s plenty of variety to Andersson’s carefully-crafted, deliciously-scripted scenes. The film begins with three vignettes about death: in the first a man drops dead opening a bottle of wine while his wife blissfully sings away to herself in the kitchen without realising; in the second a family squabble before trying to grab a handbag of jewellery from their dying mother; and the third, set in a ferry canteen, sees characters pondering what to do with a beer and a sandwich a dead man paid for before passing. This kind of blackly-comic humour is present throughout, the actors remaining straight-faced at all times. There’s an incredibly awkward scene in which a dancer rejects the attention of his teacher (the romantic story and the reasons for the rejection become apparent later in the film), while normal rules applying to time are cast aside by this inventive, unpredictable storyteller: we see one bar in the present and also in the 1940s, when it was packed with sailors and soldiers, while another present day cafe suddenly becomes a hangout for the army of Charles XII, a Swedish king who died over 400 years ago. No-one in the cafe seems to think this is odd.
By the end your laughs will be stifled, presuming that you were laughing at times: there is a disturbing scene in which English soldiers shepherd African slaves into a giant musical object / drum, which is in turn set alight for the musical enjoyment of landed gentry onlookers, while an oft-repeated line over the telephone – ‘I’m glad to hear you’re doing well’ – contrasts with a foregrounded image of a restrained monkey undergoing electric shock experimentation.
What are we supposed to make of all this? Death looms large, as does a general thread of unhappiness, but if you’re the kind of person who understands the humour that lies in the lyrical miserablism of an artist like Morrissey, you’ll definitely find yourself chuckling away through much of this astonishing film too. It won’t be for everyone, but if you get Andersson’s humour then you’re in for a treat. In terms of visual experiences A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is as good as it gets – take my word for it, Andersson’s influence on the fine art medium format photography world should not be underestimated – and I guarantee you won’t see anything like it in cinemas all year. It’s not the kind of film I would want to watch over and over again, but the writer-director’s clear sense of style and his impeccable execution must be applauded.
Directed by: Roy Andersson.
Written by: Roy Andersson.
Starring: Nisse Vestblom, Holger Andersson.
Cinematography: István Borbás, Gergely Pálos.
Editing: Alexandra Strauss.
Music: Hani Jazzar, Gorm Sundberg.
Running Time: 101 minutes.