LIST CANDIDATE: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: Holger Andersson, Nisse Vestblom

PLOT: As series of absurdist sketches linked by a few recurring characters, including most prominently a pair of joyless novelty salesmen peddling plastic vampire fangs and other trinkets.

Still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It might make the List for completeness’ sake, since the two previous entries in Roy Andersson “trilogy about being a human being”—Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living—were both easy Certified Weird choices. I must aver that I do find this the weakest of the three “human being” films, however.

COMMENTS: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a perfect title for a Roy Andersson film, evoking the concepts of detachment, alienness, and existential contemplation that mark the Swede’s strange ruminations on the human condition. In typically skewed Andersson fashion, the pigeon in question inhabits a poem, a poem which a shy elementary school girl does not quite recite in front of an assembly, but which is nonetheless, we are assured, a beautiful poem. Andersson’s sketches are hard to describe to an outsider—they are absurd, yes, and bone dry—but once you see one you immediately recognize the style. You also immediately intuit the elliptical points Andersson makes about human behavior. Life is funny and futile, strange and mundane. Social interactions are a minefield of potential embarrassments, but also full of arbitrary rules that impede our ability to connect with each other. A man drops dead in the lunchline: who will take his beer and shrimp sandwich? He paid before he passed.

Pigeon lacks, I think, the one knockout segment that each of Andersson’s previous features had. The conclusion of Songs from the Second Floor presents a truly terrifying vision of a post-Christian Europe where the dead have been unleashed on the living, while You, the Living contains the young girl’s dream about marrying Mickey Larsson, the most wistful and tender scenario Andersson has ever constructed. Pigeon offers a couple of candidates for a standard-bearing tableau. The first is the sudden appearance of the foppish King Charles XII, who rides into a modern watering hole on horseback, to no one’s especial surprise. While this sequence is pleasantly absurd, the second candidate has more satirical bite. Soldiers load chained Africans into a giant copper cylinder festooned with horns. “I thought of something horrible,” says one of the novelty salesmen, sitting on the edge of his bed in his one room apartment with “Uncle One-Tooth” masks strewn about, in the very next scene. “And I was involved.”

Andersson’s films are a continuum—the same static compositions, the same dour expressions, the same careful conservation of motion and emotion. Odd little awkward playlets played out on endlessly identical sets of gray apartments and glum bars. Due to their vignette structure and constant tone, you could cull the best segments from the three films (perhaps sprinkling in some of Andersson’s shorts) to make a standalone feature that wouldn’t play any differently than the canonical works do. The result would be a masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the best way to enjoy this is not to search for coherence or unity but to just let it wash over you and embrace the weirdness…”–Leslie Felperin, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

5 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (2014)”

  1. This was the first of the trilogy I saw so its actually my favorite, I found the other two a bit too mired in histrionics for my tastes. Its definitely different from the other two in terms of tone, but I disagree with you that it doesn’t feature some great set pieces, I think the scenes you mentioned are actually fantastic – the King Charles scene and giant Copper cylinder were actually standout moments for me, though perhaps not as whimsical as the moving house dream sequence from “You, The Living”.

    I think the other two films suffer from a lack of two compelling recurring characters in the form of the awkwardly funny Sam and Jonathon, the novelty gag hawkers. For me this is the funniest, driest entry in the series and for that reason wins out.

    1. Yes, it’s true that the order in which you see things can influence which one is your favorite. If pressed, however, I’d say that Songs from the Second Floor outshines the other two: the whole millennial apocalypse vibe provided the best backdrop for Andersson’s sketches. Overall, however, I think it’s probably more appropriate to talk about your favorite segments from the three films than to talk about your favorite of the trilogy. Almost any of the segments could be transplanted from one film to the other without anyone noticing.

  2. My favorite of the three, partly because it did have in my opinion a riskier and more provocative “knockout segment” than the other two — the roasting of African slaves for the purpose of harmonic music. My jaw literally dropped. But even before that I thought it was great. The inclusion of this scene just put it over the top for me.

  3. While this movie is great and definitely weird, I think that “Songs from the Second Floor” is better and weirder all around. Of course, the scene with the giant machine that plays music while people burn in “Pigeon” is pretty trippy. What’s more amazing is that they actually built that machine. I definitely wouldn’t complain if it made the list.

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