Roy Andersson began his directorial career with what has thus far been his greatest success. Inspired by the strong narratives of the Czechoslovak New Wave, A Swedish Love Story is a gorgeous and uplifting film about teenagers falling in love that struck a chord with Swedish audiences and catapulted Andersson into the heart of European film. Plagued by depression and terrified that this unexpected success might result in his being pigeon-holed, Andersson cast aside a number of worthwhile projects before deciding to make Giliap, a film whose dark humour and despairing tone disappointed audiences and infuriated critics. Unappreciated and misunderstood, Andersson stepped away from making feature films for twenty-five years until Songs from the Second Floor won him international acclaim including the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival. Still under-appreciated but no longer misunderstood, Andersson’s A Pigeon Sits on a Branch Contemplating Existence his first feature film since 2007’s You, The Living and it serves as a timely reminder of quite how brilliant and singular his vision can be.
The first thing you need to understand when watching a Roy Andersson film is that his narratives tend to be conspicuous by their absence. Where other directors use stories and character arcs as a means of ordering and presenting their thoughts, Andersson favours vignettes connected by themes and maybe the odd recurring character. In other words, A Pigeon Sits on a Branch Contemplating Existence is a lot closer to something like Chris Morris’ Jam than it is to the films of Ingmar Bergman.
Anderson begins by setting the tone with a series of scenes in which someone’s death is met only with indifference, irritation and a sense of social awkwardness: Children try to wrench handbags from their dying mothers’ hands, wives continue singing along to the radio as their husbands collapse on the floor and people on a ferry prove reluctant to eat a dead man’s prawn sarnie. Despite the bleakness of their subject matter, Andersson infuses each of these scenes with a pathos that renders them almost unbearably funny. Of course we react to death by worrying about handbags and prawn sandwiches… the only alternative to the paralysing finality of death is to cling to the absurdities of life!
The film then introduces us to Sam (Nisse Vestblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), a pair of depressed door-to-door salesmen trying to make a living for themselves by selling jokes and novelties. Between the bleak surrealism of Andersson’s Gothenburg and Jonathan’s tendency to burst into tears at the drop of a hat, the partnership is not exactly prospering and the pair wind up living in what appears to be an upscale men’s shelter where any attempt to make friends or talk through one’s problems is met with the stern reminder that some residents need to get up and go to work in the morning. Though beautifully rendered, these two characters are really little more than the film’s connective tissue; a means of joining up different vignettes or introducing characters who will form the basis for later sketches.
Anderson’s Gothenburg is a creation comparable to Martin Scorsese’s New York and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo, a green-tinged nightmare of bare walls, empty tables and cleanliness that borders on the sterile, it seems to age, alienate and dissolve anyone who dares to step foot inside it. Characters flirt outrageously in one scene only to wind up being unceremoniously dumped in the background of another while complete strangers lambast each other for having the temerity to suggest that a Wednesday might feel like a Thursday. The only things that seem to keep the utterly defeated population from outright madness are moments when the past unexpectedly erupts into the present and sends Napoleonic armies marching through the streets while bawdy barkeeps sing about exchanging drinks for kisses while their patrons cheer them on. But even these flashes of happiness prove fleeting as an army marching to war inevitably returns in tatters and yesterday’s lusty soldier is transformed into a lonely old drunk who keeps returning to the same bar out of loyalty to that long-dead barkeep.
Though the film’s subject matter may be unrelentingly bleak, the film itself is not. Rather than reacting to life’s surreal injustices with impotent anger, the characters of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence respond with a form of bemused acceptance that only serves to reinforce their humanity as well as ours. In Andersson’s view, we are all straight men in a comedy of cosmic cruelty and the least we can do is not step on the lines. Beautifully conceived, beautifully made and beautifully performed, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence works as both cutting-edge comedy and art house existentialism.