A Surreal Swedish Mindf*ck: The Tao of ‘A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence’
It took 25 years for filmmaker Roy Andersson to make his third film, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Welcome to Sweden’s answer to Fellini.
In life, only death is certain. So how should we spend even the spare humdrum seconds of our days?
Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s black comedy A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence does a lot of existential pondering as it unfolds in a series of quietly comical interactions between the meek and the miserable. His tableau of characters are everymen and women shuffling through their day-to-day lives in their apartments, their offices, the pub, the bus stop, the barber shop, pausing only occasionally to exchange superficial pleasantries with strangers.
Mostly, they actively avoid deeper human connection when the opportunities arise, too absorbed in their own lives to bother. Nary a laptop or smartphone pops up within Andersson’s meticulous, painterly stagings, but that melancholy malaise feels acutely familiar in a digital age of increasingly interconnected disconnection.
The final part of Andersson’s trilogy “about being a human being” is, like his Songs From the Second Floor and You, The Living, a collection of vignettes peering in on extraordinarily ordinary lives in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. And like his previous films and celebrated work in commercials, it finds abstract beauty and profundity in the mundane and awkward moments that make us utterly—and imperfectly—human.
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence opens on moments of indifference in the face of death. A man struggles to open a bottle of wine and dies of a heart attack as his wife prepares dinner in the next room. Another upends a hospice room while tugging at the purse full of riches his mother is clutching on her deathbed. Onlookers gaze upon the body of a man who’s just dropped dead, as a cafeteria clerk gamely tries to give away the perfectly good sandwich and beer he left behind.
Andersson’s observant eye moves through the world of the living, noticing flashes of longing, loneliness, rejection, disappointment, and sadness—even if no one else does. Occasionally, characters overcome with emotion break the fourth wall to tell their tragic tales directly into the camera, as others awkwardly and conspicuously back away slowly.
A polite rejoinder recurs throughout the film: “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine,” people say and repeat, always on the telephone to unseen acquaintances. So does the Civil War-era judgment anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which takes on different meaning as its hummed by a blithely unwitting housewife and sung by a boisterous bar maid during WWII.
The only constant characters through these dull and surreal shenanigans are two aging novelty item salesmen, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom), who bicker as they unsuccessfully ply wares—fake vampire fangs, “laughing bags,” and a grotesque face mask—that nobody wants to buy.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” says Sam.
“We want to help people have fun,” pleads Jonathan as the two wander through the city, growing increasingly desperate.
They lose their way one day and stumble into one of the film’s curiously anachronistic asides, when the modern-day patrons of a local watering hole are interrupted by the ceremonious arrival of 18th century Swedish King Charles XII and his army. Wordlessly, through a lackey, the young king propositions a male bartender en route to the disastrous Battle of Poltava. When his forces return after a historically bloody defeat, every woman in the place has been widowed.
Andersson’s film is an argument in favor of being less of a dick to others while we’re all still around on this planet, despairing in our own lives but breathing the same air. For some, that might happen out of the blue, as with the cheesemonger who steps out on his morning stoop with his morning cigar and declares that—at least today—he feels “kind.”
For others, like sad sack salesman Jonathan, who’s teased constantly for being overly sensitive, that encroaching sense of human responsibility arrives in a dream, along with a vague feeling of guilt for sins of the past.
And what a vision. In the film’s most jarring scene, British colonial soldiers march black-skinned slaves into an enormous metal drum, then set it alight as the sounds of the dying toot a horrific kind of “music” into the air—all for the entertainment of well-dressed elderly onlookers who sip champagne amusedly.
The name “Boliden” is prominently etched into the side of the death instrument, a reference to the Swedish mining company that dumped 20,000 tons of toxic waste in Chile in the 1980s and was sued in 2013 by victims of arsenic poisoning.
The point is: humans can be grossly terrible in their indifference to one another on any scale. Even the pigeon—arguably birdkind’s most unspectacular and disrespected specimen—can be trained to pass the “mirror test,” denoting a creature’s powers of self-awareness. Better to realize later rather than never.