This is like watching a Wes Anderson movie if Wes Anderson made a movie as a 78 LP but made us view it in 33⅓.
I dove into Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence cold, knowing nothing more about the film than what is divulged in the first few synoptic sentences that show up in the top results of a Google search. I also dove in at 8:30am on Boxing Day, on the heels of the bizarre and bleak visage that Mother Nature gifted to Winchester, Virginia for Christmas 2015: Mornings socked in by fog, apocalyptically warm temperatures and flat grey skies. The latter, incidentally, is also a fair description of Pigeon, both visually and thematically. But while I lacked background for this film, the third of Andersson’s “Living Trilogy” (following 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor and 2007’s You, the Living), thanks to Film Club 3.0 I did not entirely lack context.
You see, Pigeon is a Swedish film. And that sparse scenery, unmistakable fashion aesthetic, dark humor, and molasses-in-January pacing – it no longer feels unfamiliar. In fact, the last film that made me turn to my husband and say “Wes Anderson” was Swedish filmmaker Felix Herngren’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Film Club screening from July 2015).
Pigeon is a series of short vignettes that are mostly unconnected from a traditional plot standpoint and grow increasingly dark as the movie progresses. A few settings and characters are revisited at points throughout the film, as are some oft-repeated character traits and behaviors that made me wish I knew more about Swedish cinema and Scandinavian culture in general so that I could more accurately distinguish a plot device from a colloquial nod. I know that both are equally important to the filmmaker and viewer, and this was one of those films where I knew I was just not ‘getting it’ the way I should be.
The main characters are Sam and Jonathan, middle aged brothers and business partners who are in their words “in the entertainment business,” but in reality are orphaned, aging and failing at their job as traveling salesman. “We want to help people have fun,” Jonathan says repeatedly as he and his brother drudge through the city each day and then back to their flophouse each night, stepping into and right back out of the sad lives and failed dreams of clients and others with which they come into contact. They don’t ever acknowledge or react to the tragedy of human existence they encounter on a daily basis; presumably in many cases it is indistinguishable from their own.
In fact, Andersson’s scenes are filled with windows and doors, which he uses throughout the film to give us a peek at what’s happening behind the (main) scene. This is a technique filmmakers often use for comedic effect, or when what is happening in the background is where viewers are meant to focus their attention. The characters in Andersson’s backgrounds, however, aren’t doing anything more interesting than the characters in the foreground. Often the two are indistinguishable, at least in mood if not in action. In many cases the two, background and foreground, are oblivious to one another, focused solely on their own problems or tasks. Not that the foreground characters are much more dynamic. Andersson’s scenes are filled with silent spectators, people who in most cases remain dispassionate voyeurs, even as tragedy, pain and injustice happens right in front of them.
Pay close attention to the background and supporting characters: They reflect Andersson’s thoughts on people and society as a whole: See: “…aren’t doing anything more interesting …”, “…oblivious to one another…”, “… dispassionate voyeurs, even as tragedy, pain and injustice happens right in front of them…”
But then there is Jonathan. He feels despair; and more importantly – he expresses it, which I felt was crucial because the vignettes grew darker and crueler, and the few scenes of sweetness and contentment that Andersson threw in (the lovers on the beach, the mother and child in the park) had faded from memory. I had started to disconnect and clock-watch. Then comes a particularly disturbing scene near the end that turns out to be a dream, or vision, of Jonathan’s that disturbs him greatly. We’d seen him cry and bemoan his own life circumstances, only to be reminded by his brother that he had to work the next day and chastised by the flophouse caretaker because it was late and others might be trying to sleep. But after this disturbing vision Jonathan starts to question larger issues: the morality and virtue, or lack thereof, of human beings; the meaning of life; his own treatment of others and his own existence.
Whew … there is hope after all.
I tend to avoid doing too much research or reading (reviews, interviews, plot summaries) before I watch a film, but I hate watching a film where I feel the entire time that I am just not getting it. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence was one of those films for me. But in the case of Pigeon, a beautifully shot and thought-provoking film, not entirely getting it did not make me think I shouldn’t have bothered. It is just not a film to view cold. My advice: do a little research on Andersson and the film, make time for the first two films in his trilogy and then sit down for the Pigeon.