The tag that’s stuck assiduously to Roy Andersson since it was first applied to him is ‘the slapstick Bergman’ and it’s not wildly inaccurate. There’s an undeniable existentialist bent to his post-millennial trilogy of films, of which A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence is the final part, and is, as the opening title tells us, ‘the final part of a trilogy about being a human being’. But this also rather sells Andersson short. ‘Slapstick’ undersells the deftness (if not the daftness) of his black humour, and its warmth.
Anyone who has seen either of the preceding two films in the ‘trilogy’ (Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living) should know what to expect from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch - depressed, saggy, deathly pale middle-aged and elderly people walk around complaining and sighing their way through absurd and largely unconnected situations, unsatisfying conversations full of repeated dialogue and washed out landscapes. The acting is unnatural (anti-natural even), and largely somnambulistic, like David Lynch on sleeping pills. But the film is also very funny and, ultimately, uplifting.
“We want to help people have fun”, the chronically miserable pair of travelling novelty item salesmen say again and again through failing sales pitches at joke shops – we can’t help but laugh, but we feel for them too. They’re triers and they’re our primary companions through this film. They fall out and they make up again. One of them has a vision of himself in a terrifying and bizarre allegorical scene for our own Western interpassive role in the more horrifying aspects of late Capital – on telling his business partner, inconsolably upset, he is advised not to worry about it, they’ve got work to get on with. Is this Andersson’s advice to us? Certainly not, but it taps into the breadth of the comedie humaine represented by this deceptively cohesive film.
Andersson has said that the film was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Hunters in the Snow, in which birds sit on a branch and appear to look down curiously at the human’s below. The greatest understanding we can have of this remarkable film and its companion pieces comes from Andersson himself:
“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch consists of a bird’s panoramic view of the human condition, in which the bird not only reflects on human existence but also worries deeply about it, as I do myself. The pigeon is astonished that humans do not see an approaching apocalypse, though it is in man’s ability to avoid destroying the future for themselves. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch shows the looming apocalypse and offers the possibility to believe in our capacity to avoid it”.
What more could you want?
Andrew R. Hill