Saturday, 13 June 2015

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The third in Roy Andersson's "Living" Trilogy is a fond, sad and funny farewell to a world of muted existence, of deadpan whimsy (Swedish-style, of course). @ TIFF BellLightbox & rest of Canada via FilmsWeLike

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015)
Dir. Roy Andersson
Starring: Nils Westblom, Holger Andersson

Review By Greg Klymkiw

How much you'll enjoy Roy Andersson's A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence will most likely depend upon how much Roy Andersson you can take, if at all. He is, to be sure, either an acquired taste or one who is immediately embraced by those who experience his unique vision for the first time. Though he made his first feature in 1970 (the acclaimed A Swedish Love Story) and his sophomore effort in 1975 (the unjustly reviled Gillap), most of his contemporary followers discovered him with the first in his astonishing "life" trilogy, Songs from the Second Floor in 2000, then the second, You, the Living, in 2007 and just this past year with the final instalment which won the Grand Prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

If you've never seen his previous work, never fear. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence can easily be enjoyed without having experienced any of his films, including those first two instalments of the trilogy. What you might have to first get over - I know I did - are the touches of whimsy permeating the work. If there's anything I can't stand, it's whimsy. Happily, this is neither French nor Belgian whimsy, so it doesn't immediately land like so many globs of bilious chunks blown into a vomit bucket.

It's Swedish - THANK CHRIST! - which immediately takes it into the territory of deep, almost unrelenting sadness. Not that you won't laugh, though. Andersson is a veritable knee-slap-inducer of the highest order. Some have idiotically linked him to the grotesqueries of mid-to-late Fellini, but for me, he's always been a curious amalgam of Chaplin (albeit on heavy doses of lithium) with splashes of De Sica/Rossellini neo-realism and, best of all, the deep ennui of Ingmar Bergman and the pathologically insane reliance upon tableaux so rooted in most of Carl Dreyer's canon (post-The Passion of Joan of Arc and notably in Ordet and Wrath of God).

Andersson creates images and situations which are often deeply sublime and the laughs he wrenches from you must be paid for in dire, often endless moments where you're shedding tears - often due to the universal truths of humanity which he brilliantly exposes, but just as often because one is simply blown away by his virtuosity as a film artist.

Set in the major sea port city of Göteborg, one would immediately think the place is utterly bereft of the joyous cultural and historical touchstones that make it one of the most vibrant cities, not just in Sweden, but the world. I can't recall a single instance of sun peeking through the heavy clouds, nor any interior that wasn't splashed in fluorescent light and a kind of spartan decor which borders on a complete lack of anything resembling warmth, taste or style. In fact, there are only two instances in the entire film where we see anyone smile. One involves an ever-so brief moment involving children and the other, so heart-rending I refuse to spoil it for you (and, you might even miss it altogether).

Gotta love Roy Andersson! There's nobody out there like him in contemporary cinema, though I'd argue that Austrian Ulrich Seidl or bad boy Lars von Trier are not unlike a Roy Andersson who train their lenses upon the most vile aspects of human ugliness and moral decrepitude.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is as episodic as they come. Andersson presents several mini-playlets (he's happily all-too-in-love with a kind of skewed proscenium quality to his compositions) in which we observe slices of life involving numerous characters who are only connected by virtue of living in the same city. Andersson affixes his camera in one position, usually in a slightly off-kilter angle from some discrete corner viewpoint as he almost sneakily seems to be spying upon the action of the scenes. All 100-minutes of the picture is comprised of - I kid you not! - about 35 single shots and they are beautiful, as much as for the dramatic content as they are for their compositional qualities. Somehow, Andersson manages to make the harshly bland quality of the settings as pulchritudinous as all get out.

The movie begins with a series of short snappers which are presented with the inter-title "Three Meetings With Death" and they are exactly that. From a man suffering a fatal heart attack in his dining room after unsuccessfully attempting to uncork a bottle of wine while his wife continues to putter about the kitchen, through to an absolutely hilarious sequence involving a dead man on the floor of a cafeteria aboard a ferry as the cashier wonders what to do with the meal and beer the man ordered and paid for, before keeling over, of course. The middle vignette is as heartbreaking as it is funny - a self-contained mini-masterpiece within the larger whole as a woman on her deathbed refuses to part with her handbag full of jewels and money, hoping to take it with her to the afterlife.

Throughout the movie are several other vignettes - one involving a chunky flamenco teacher and her obsession with a lithe, beautiful young man in her class, a befuddled military officer searching for a lecture, an inexperienced barber filling in for his infirm friend (and scaring away customers as he describes that he hasn't cut hair since his military days), several sequences involving different characters engaged in telephone calls in which they all utter similar pleasantries of the “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine” variety.

There are moments of out and out surrealism. My least favourite involves a bar which keeps receiving visits from King Charles XII and his army and my "favourite", though that's not quite the right word to describe it, is a horrific dream sequence involving stiff-upper-lip British Colonial soldiers forcing a huge lineup of African slaves into a humungous copper drum, locking them in, setting fires underneath and rigidly observing as it revolves like a spit and roasts the people alive.

There is one narrative thread which ties the movie together and involves two sad-sack door-to-door salesmen specializing in wholesale novelty items to mostly uninterested or payment-welching shopkeepers. Both men seem fraught with the mental illness of depression, though it's poor Sam (Nils Westblom) who appears to suffer the most, especially since his partner Jonathan (Holger Andersson) is an inveterate bully who keeps referring to his old pal as a "crybaby" (which, he actually resembles since he's prone to breaking out into painful sobs at the drop of a hat).

Their scenes are the funniest and saddest in Andersson's film (and perhaps up there with some of the funniest and saddest moments in all of film history). When Sam, with dour deadpan, oft-repeats his sales pitch, "We want to help people have fun," it's clearly obvious these men are ill-prepared to sell vampire teeth with extra-long fangs, a laugh-bag (described by Jonathan as guaranteed to "bring out a smile at parties, either at home or in the office") and their "new item" which they place a lot of faith in, a grotesque rubber mask called "Uncle One Tooth" which crybaby Sam is forced to repeatedly demonstrate, an item so horrific it even terrifies a store clerk upon first viewing it.

Of all the characters in this kaleidoscope of humanity, Sam and Jonathan are a perfect pair for us to follow as Andersson takes us on this genuinely exquisite journey. It's a world most of us would never want to live in, but we're grateful for the experience of living it in the film. Indeed, like Bruegel's 1565 oil on wood painting "The Hunters in the Snow", Andersson's chief influence here, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence works on a similar plane as those birds in the 14th Century masterpiece looking down upon the weary, downtrodden men trudging through snow under grey skies. Andersson's a sly one, though. We'd like to think we're the pigeons, but ultimately, we're all the dupes.

Andersson uses his film to hold up a mirror to all of us.


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is in theatrical release via FilmWeLike. It plays in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and throughout the rest of Canada soon after.