"An overwhelming collection of drily comic and adeptly staged skits about life.”
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Swedish: En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) is the final instalment of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s award-winning trilogy. Like its predecessors Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), its central premise is about “being a human being.” Selected as Sweden’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, the movie is a collection of multiple sketches (around 37) that celebrate different aspects of life in a dark comic tone.
The film opens with three episodes of death. The first happens in a living room where a husband suffers a heart attack while uncorking a bottle of wine. In the second vignette, an old lady is dying in a hospital bed but she refuses to part with her handbag which contains her worldly treasures. The last sequence takes place aboard a cruise ship where a passenger, after having paid for his meal, collapses at the counter. Since there are no refunds, his meal is distributed to willing customers.
The rest of the film is like that – a three-minute-or-so episode is presented and then followed by another. It is a meticulous work but Andersson successfully creates a hypnotically delightful masterpiece by cohesively weaving a tight thread of amusing life-affirming skits. The sketches cover various times and places. Some are interconnected as different experiences of certain people or through the repeated appearances of multiple characters. But what really ties them all is their exploration of life through dark and dry humor with an underlying quiet sadness or sense of empathy. There are frames which are almost laugh-out-funny but the juxtaposed area of pain or melodrama stirs sickening dread or guilt.
This makes the film distinctive and unforgettable. The skits are shot with a fixed camera with maximum depth of field. Hence, several happenings are captured in a single frame. In one episode, a business-as-usual scientist takes a call on her cell phone in a laboratory while nearby her, a live monkey is being tortured by shock therapy. Cameras are also high definition so that minute details on the background appear vividly. Angles are mostly off and skeltered, creating impressive framing and blocking as well as leading our eyes toward adjacent activities instead of purely focusing on the subject. Thus, watching the movie requires keen senses - to let our eyes move freely, to study the surroundings and to soak up the details. Such shooting style suggests a long and deep examination of human life.
Production design is also imposing. Its world is hued with morgue-like shades of grey, beige and washed-out colors. It is dreary-looking, reflecting the numbness and prevailing air of personalities in the moment. Setting is remarkably designed such as the prison-looking boarding house, drab streets, not-too-often-busy bars and restaurants. These elements create a claustrophobic or desolate atmosphere and combined with the odd-angled shot and pantomimic or soliloquized delivery of lines, it feels that the actors are actually addressing the audience like in stage plays.
The film has plenty of recurring themes like mortality, aging, downfall, sadness, forgetfulness and unrequited love. Similarly, certain physical aspects are repeated like people reflecting, laughing toys and drinking in bars. While different arrangements of the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” stir mixed-emotions, the standard initial phone conversation of “I’m happy to hear that you’re doing fine’ initially elicits laugh but later becomes annoying.
The most often-seen and notable characters in the film are Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), two sticky salesmen whose mission is to “help people have fun.” Being in the “entertainment business,” they go door-to-door selling novelty items like vampire teeth and a ludicrous mask which Jonathan obligingly demonstrates to customers. Their clients are not able to pay them though, resulting to a huge debt to their supplier. Eventually, they quarrel about it but in the end, they make peace because all they have is each other.
One haunting skit also features Europe’s colonial past. In this scene, a gigantic bass drum outfitted with trumpets of different sizes is suspended like roulette over a pit. One by one, chained African slaves which include women and children are ushered inside by uniformed soldiers. Once everyone is inside the chamber, the army blaze a fire under it. While the drum creates a beautiful sound out of the slaves’ screams of anguish, richly-clad people go out of a nearly mansion to hear the entertainment. Indeed, the continent’s present is not ever glorious without some horrors in the past.
Other vignettes in the movie are the flirtation of King Charles XII, Sweden’s 18th century leader, with a cute barman; a flamenco teacher getting her hands all over a student’s body while a janitress is busy with a phone chitchat outside the dance studio; twin girls blowing bubbles from the balcony of their apartment building; young lovers making out on a beach; a mother tickling her baby inside a carriage; and an argument between bystanders whether it is Wednesday or Thursday.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence feels like a number of short films tied together by a narrative about two old salesmen. As there is no single plot, it is best not to make a general impression but to simply make sense out of each episode. Interpretations are also relative since it is up to us on how to reflect back on our lives the myriad lessons concomitantly presented in the skits.
Production companies: Roy Andersson Filmproduktion, 4 ½ Fiksjon, Essential Filmproduktion, Parisienne de Production, Swedish Television, Arte France Cinema, ZDF/Arte
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson, Viktor Cyllengerg, Lotti Tornros, Jonas Gerholm, Ola Stensson, Oscar Salomonsson, Roger Olsen Likvern
Director-Screenwriter: Roy Andersson
Producer: Pernilla Sandstrom
Executive producers: Sarah Nagel, Isabell Wiegand
Directors of photography: Istvan Borbas, Gergely Palos
Production designers: Ulf Jonsson, Julia Tegsrom, Nicklas Nilsson, Sandra Parment, Isabel Sjostrand
Costume designer: Julia Tegstrom
Editor: Alexandra Strauss