Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson) are two schlubs trying to sell their tacky novelty items – extra long vampire teeth, laugh bags and the Uncle One-Tooth mask – and are none too successful at their job. King Charles XII of Sweden (Victor Gyllenberg), on his way to battle the Russian foe, stops by a modern day bar to get a glass of mineral water. Plus, there are three meetings with death in “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”
Swedish director Roy Andersson’s previous film, “You, the Living (2007)” is a series of vignettes about modern day Sweden and the joy and sorrow of its inhabitants. His latest is darker in tone and full of black humor as it examines the human existence – mainly through Sam and Jonathan and their ongoing plight. But, there are many other elements that reflect the more economic downturn in Sweden since the worldwide financial disaster of 2008.
“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” is not for everyone. The average patron at the multiplex would avoid Andersson’s film in drove on just the title alone. But, for those of us who appreciate the works of filmmakers such as Andersson – films that are off the map to mainstream filmgoers – then his latest will amuse, both with humor and the often stunning tableaux that the filmmaker creates with his long static shots, letting the eye take in the image. There is also a great drinking song by Limping Lotta, the owner of a bar, sung to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I give it a B+.
Inspired by Bruegel the Elder's 'Hunters in the Snow,' Swedish writer/director Roy Andersson ("Songs from the Second Floor") completes his blackly comic trilogy on the human condition with "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence," where the banalities of everyday life compete with observations on death, commerce, sexual attraction, education, the arts, service industries, animal experimentation and Colonialism, Using his trademark static camera focused on tableaux bleached of color, Andersson's so skilled he can elicit laughter with a character walking into a frame.
He opens with three absurdist looks at death, a man succumbing to a heart attack while attempting to open a bottle of wine while his wife merrily continues cooking unawares in the kitchen beyond (Andersson's sets are frequently presented at an angle, with background action seen through doorways, corridors and windows). It's funny precisely because it's so ordinary, the effort expended on that stubborn cork lethally comical.
The people here are mostly pale and glum if not downright depressed, their delivery deadpan. Characters reappear, cross over into other tableaux and sometimes reinvent themselves like the ferry captain who doesn't want to waste a deceased passenger's shrimp sandwich who shows up later filling in at his brother-in-law's barbershop, losing another customer after his recitation of credentials (none, apparently). Time is shifted, the past commenting upon the present when an elderly regular at Limping Lotte's bar is seen in his youth, or when a modern cafe is interrupted by King Charles XII's eighteenth century army on its way to and back from Poltava, the King spouting on about 'the Russian,' when he's not distracted by a young waiter (or waiting for an occupied bathroom).
The most prominent featured players are Jonathan (Holger Andersson, "You, the Living") and Sam (Nils Westblom, "You, the Living"), a pair of ineffective novelty salesman who 'want people to have fun' with their vampire teeth, laughing bags or new Uncle One-Tooth masks. One couldn't imagine less fun-filled guys with more meager wares, dominant Sam bullying his sad sack partner. Another businessman keeps showing up outside a restaurant, confused as to whether he's got the right date, time and even place. Inside we can see the groping flamenco teacher from earlier being abandoned by her favored student. When he returns again, there's a rare bit of revelry going on inside, but the scene's main character is excluded, outside and alone.
The film leaves you with a constant smile, until Andersson hits with a one-two punch in late goings. The third time we witness someone on one of those 'Happy to hear you're doing well' type of phone calls, a monkey's getting shocked in the foreground. Andersson follows with an even more disturbing recreation of a real event in British Colonialism, a downtrodden race subjected to gruesome torture for the entertainment of wealthy oppressors, heated in a metal drum outfitted with exterior horns which make music of their suffering.
But although Andersson takes his serious timeouts, he bounces back to his absurdist situations, all scored to the cooings of his titular bird, a waltz and several songs all set to 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' In thirty-nine scenes, "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" makes us look at ourselves as if we were a visiting alien race.
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is running a complete Roy Andersson retrospective, including the first two parts of this trilogy, "Songs from the Second Floor" and "You, the Living." The complete schedule is here.
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