The Unexpected Virtue of Misanthropy: A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence

06/03/2015 7:00 AM |
photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence
Directed by Roy Andersson
Opens June 3

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is an unfashionably philosophical, if comic, reflection on man’s inhumanity to man—and, in one scene, monkey. But it’s certainly self-aware. Let’s start with the title, which sounds like a 60s European art film sent through translation software. Director Roy Andersson, who has only made five feature films in his 45-year career, viewed his fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman as a rival when the latter was still alive. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence can be seen as a way of trying to top Bergman’s metaphysical aspirations, while retaining a sense of humor.

At first, A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence seems like a series of plotless sketches. (The film consists of 39 shots.) It opens with three deaths in a row, but lets us off easier than World of Glory, the 1991 Andersson short dramatizing the Holocaust. Gradually, a narrative emerges. In the main thread, two shy, down-on-their-luck novelty goods salesmen live in a flophouse and try to scrape together a living. Elsewhere, a flamenco teacher uses her position as an excuse to feel up a male pupil. The film slips in time several times—in parallel to the scene with the teacher, King Charles XII emerges from the 18th century to pick up a male bartender. The patrons of another bar join together in song. The salesmen repeatedly demonstrate the wonders of vampire teeth and a grotesque mask to an apathetic clientele; even they seem as bored as they people they talk to. Most powerfully, Andersson reflects on the horrors of racism and colonialism in a two-scene sequence that never sheds a drop of blood on-screen but outdoes 12 Years A Slave for sheer discomfort.

The strangest thing about A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is how much it feels like a product of this moment. The film is a contemporary of “the Golden Age of Television,” not Bergman’s Persona. The lighting and cinematography look like video, not 35mm, although Andersson’s framing and blocking do call for the space of a theatrical setting. He never moves the camera and places the actors at a remove from it. A sense of depression is reflected in his reluctance to use close-ups or camera movement, yet Andersson has quite an eye for beautiful set-ups even within the restrictions he’s given himself. His sense of humor is deadpan and misanthropic yet humanist. Andersson’s dour wit isn’t far from Louie. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence expects the worst from the human race but holds out a slim hope for the best.