Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Only a fellow Marxist would consider Roy Andersson’s vision of humanity to be humanistic. He will pass withering judgment, in aesthetically severe terms, on the nasty brutishness that is the human condition. Be warned, if you do not consider his loosely connected vignettes utterly charming, you might be in danger of having your hipster cineaste credentials pulled when Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (trailer here) opens tomorrow at Film Forum.

Frankly, the precious and pretentious title is all you really need to know about Andersson’s latest film. Technically, it is the third installment of Andersson’s vaguely defined “The Living Trilogy,” but each discrete feature film is as weakly tied together as the short fragmentary scenes that form each pseudo-anthology film. Although each scene is intended to be viewable on its own term, they are almost all more like sketches than proper short narratives.

We will see plenty of people die in quirky and humiliating ways during Pigeon. Plenty more will simply be worn down by the miseries of life. King Charles XXII of Sweden also puts in an appearance in one of Andersson’s more surreal sequences. It is sort of like a Monty Python bit that scrupulously avoids going for laughs and never finds any inadvertently.
Stylistically, Andersson could be considered closely akin to Bent Hamer, except he uses much more muted color palettes. Relying on fixed stationary shots, he composes each scene like a painter. It is therefore hardly coincidental Pigeon has such a static feel. Aside from the recurring traveling salesman duo who consciously echo Vladimir and Estragon, there is little spillover between scenes. While that sort of inter-weaving can often feel forced, it also helps establish a narrative structure.

By far, the best of Andersson’s thirty-nine fragments is a nostalgic piece that features the same beer hall customer both as a young man in the 1940s participating in the rousing sing-alongs led by the outgoing barmaid and as an elderly addled customer, who still sits in the same table, presumably night after night. It is a touching sequence that implies much through imagery and song.

On the other hand, a sketch in which British Imperialists feed native peoples into a machine clearly intended to evoke National Socialist gas chambers is so ridiculously didactic, it clashes with the rest of the film’s stoic reserve. It is also rather rich for Andersson to liken the Brits to Hitler’s Germany, given the extent of Swedish collaboration and Britain’s resoluteness standing against European Fascism.

Regardless, the lack of a compelling through-line and the general weakness of its connective tissue makes Pigeon a frustrating viewing experience. Beware of the Pavlovian critical laurels sure to rain down. It looks painstakingly composed, but there is precious little beneath its austere surface, beyond an ugly contempt for the sheepish proles. Not recommended, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence opens tomorrow (6/3) at Film Forum.