The brilliant title to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a reference to the 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Director Roy Andersson stated that he saw the birds in the scene and imagined them as watching the people below and wondering what they are doing. In this, the third film in his ‘Living’ trilogy he offers the audience an opportunity to become the eponymous birds with a panoramic view of the human condition.
The film follows travelling salesmen Sam and Jonathan (played by Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson) as they try their best to peddle novelty items to everyone they meet. “We want to help people have fun”, Jonathan says in a crestfallen voice, epitomising the film’s brilliant interplay between tragedy and comedy. There isn’t really a linear narrative, the film meandering between scenes in which Sam and Jonathan hover at the sidelines, and some in which they aren’t present at all. The story (if there even is one) is told through comic sketches performed by non-professionals; who better to play out the lives of fallible, everyday women and men? The settings and costume are intentionally bland but each vignette is so meticulously staged that they alone are a joy to look at. Andersson makes full use of the space provided by using static deep focus camera shots, foreground and background coming together to bring the absurd and the mundane to life, in one instance uniting the silent patrons of a quiet bar with the marching forces of King Charles XII outside. A film tackling as lofty a subject as life itself might find itself in danger of being pretentious or oppressive, but A Pigeon is neither. Instead it is artfully funny and profound, drawing humour from the simple sad weirdness of being, whether it be in the form of a cackling laugh bag or in drinking a dead man’s pint.
Having said that, it is a film that skirts criticism. In one scene an old deaf man sits in a bar and remembers a night in 1943 when hymns were sung and drinks were paid with kisses. In another slaves are loaded into an oven made of trumpets and their screams are transformed into beautiful music. What does that mean? How do you make sense of that?
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a expertly formed film, out of what, I don’t quite know. But if it weren’t so ineffable it wouldn’t be nearly as good.