The pretentious yet delightful title of Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is inspired by a painting by Bruegel the Elder, titled “Hunters in the Snow”. The painting depicts various human activities over a snowy village landscape: besides the hunters and their dogs there are people cooking over an outdoor fire, and in the distance we see skaters on a frozen lake. The last thing one might notice are the pigeons in a tree watching life unfold, but Andersson has chosen to take us up into the branches with him, so that we may be able to contemplate our own existence in all its weirdness, monotony, discomfort, chilling horror and even the rare glimmers of beauty.
The film loosely follows two traveling salesmen, Jonathan and Sam, as they unsuccessfully attempt to sell the “joke products” they specialise in. There is something darkly comical about watching them slowly plodding around the city, mournfully demonstrating products such as vampire teeth, laughing bags and a terrifyingly hideous “Uncle One-Tooth” mask. Every time Jonathan repeats his trademark “we just want to help people have fun” sales line with his voice completely devoid of enthusiasm, we are struck by how ridiculously unconvincing the statement is and how unsuited the pair are to the entertainment business.
However, much like the hunters in Bruegel’s painting, Jonathan and Sam are but one part of what life is. Andersson always reminds us of this: his usage of fixed camera shots and lulls in the action in the foreground invites the eye to peer through the doorways and windows that are almost always a part of a scene. In one of the first of these instances, we witness a man suffer a heart attack while uncorking a bottle of wine, and through a door leading to the kitchen we just barely glimpse his wife bustling around, unable to hear him over the sound of some kitchen device. Life is almost out of reach for the deathly pale characters, all of whom are made up to resemble corpses trudging through the surreal scenes and scenarios Andersson creates.
And things just keep getting more and more surreal; from the tap dancing instructor who gets uncomfortably touchy with one of her pupils, to the ostentatious arrival of 18th century Swedish monarch Charles XII. Jonathan and Sam cower in the corner of the bar as his majesty King Charles propositions the handsome bartender and hordes of his troops on horseback march past the windows, overturning the modern age in a way that is preposterously absurd to us, but is accepted by the patrons of the bar with the same quiet resignation the rest of the characters typically display. Following the disastrous Swedish defeat at the hand of the Russians at Poltava, the humiliated monarch returns to the bar where many women are sobbing about being widowed; a sadness about a loss long past but, as the film emphasises through constant repetition and the weaving of history into the present, is still sorely felt and will recur. Such is the nature of humanity.
The film takes a bleak turn after the defeat at Poltava, the hopelessness culminating in a particularly memorable scene of utterly chilling horror – horrible because, unlike the other scenes of the film, there is no whimsical irony about it, nor any ridiculous awkwardness that allows us to laugh at it. We watch shackled black men, women and even a baby being herded with whips into a rotating cylindrical oven with trumpets poking out of it, so that their screams at being roasted alive are transformed into haunting music played to the pleasure of elegantly dressed men and women. And to make us fully feel the impact of this scene, Andersson prolongs it an uncomfortable while, forcing us to watch as it rotates over and over and over. The behind-the-scenes video reveals that one of his directions to the actors playing the soldiers is that they look to the camera one by one until they are all gazing at us. I can’t help but admire the brilliance of Andersson’s direction of this scene in particular; not only do the soldiers look at us as though for approval, but also the fancy people in suits and evening gowns stare right at us, watching us burn.
Yet it wouldn’t be correct to say that there are no scenes of beauty or hope in the film. They are rare, but when they come – in the beautiful forms of the innocence of young girls blowing soap bubbles, the maternal love of a mother tickling her baby in a park, or the romantic love of a young couple lying on the beach – they are lovely and they are sweet. Along with the recurring line “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine,” often said by those who seem the most miserable, they are reminders that someone, somewhere is doing alright despite everything. Call me an optimist, but I believe that’s the note the film ends on: a trivial argument about whether it’s Wednesday or Thursday subtly implies that life really is as ridiculous as that, and sometimes it being Wednesday is a more impactful than all the armies of Charles XII. The hunters may be in the foreground of the painting, but in the background there are always beautiful mountains and frozen lakes on which people ice-skate.
Note: Isabelle originally saw the film at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Film Festival and this review was logged then.
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