A Pigeon Sat on a Tree Reflecting on Existence (Sweden)

2014 Sweden

SUNDAY 26 March 10.00 am
TUESDAY 28 March 8.15 pm
RUNNING TIME 100 minutes


Like his previous features, master Swedish director Roy Andersson takes up the theme of “being a human being” with this meticulously crafted, dreamlike black comedy. Sam and Jonathan, a pair of hapless novelty salesman, take us on a kaleidoscopic tour of the human condition in reality and fantasy, unfolding in absurdist episodes: a sing-along at a 1940s beer hall, a randy flamenco teacher, a thirsty King Charles XII of Sweden en route to battle, and a diabolical metaphor for the horrors inflicted by European colonialism. It is a journey that unveils the beauty of single moments, the pettiness of others, life’s grandeur, and the humour and tragedy hidden within us all.


The pigeon in question is dead; it’s in the first scene of this captivatingly strange and dreamlike film, sitting on a branch in a glass case, stuffed, as part of a museum display. Various pallid characters shuffle around, peering at the exhibits, and we in turn examine them from that deadpan fixed camera position that Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson prefers. These people look dead too; later, one will compare another to a zombie, but this does not really convey how diffident and withdrawn their undead behaviour is.

The pensive pigeon recurs in a poem haltingly read out by a child with special needs, and Andersson confers mystery and poignancy on the moment – but for now the sight of it behind glass, combined with the title so recently flashed up on the screen, recalls the work of David Shrigley, the conceptual artist who presented a stuffed dog holding up a sign saying “I’m Dead”.

This is the third in what Andersson is now calling a trilogy about the human condition, the previous works being You, the Living (2007) and Songs from the Second Floor (2000): the films have been more than worth the wait, both singly and now in their bizarre and magnificent totality. As with its predecessors, this film is a succession of hallucinatory tableaux, each depicting a world of Beckettian loneliness and hyperreal drabness. It revolves loosely around two desolate figures trying to sell joke-shop novelties to various retail outlets, and who live in a flophouse where the lights go off in segments along the corridor, as in a horror film.

Figures and faces are seen in the middle-distance, never close-up, but with pin-sharp clarity; Andersson maintains a rigorous deep focus all along his vertiginous perspective lines, so that we can see the figures on the distant skyline, or buildings from a rear window, in the same painterly detail as a scuffed table in the foreground. Each interrelated scene is a vivid, eerily complete world: perhaps like the “magic lantern” displays in the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Chicago Art Institute, which famously inspired Orson Welles. The film’s unhappy human beings seem to have returned from the netherworld to enact a slo-mo ballet of sadness. Or perhaps we have arrived in their netherworld.

But there is something new in this film: a tonal shift. Once, Andersson’s attitude towards this tortured pageant of shabby humanity seemed to be a wan compassion, a kind of fellow feeling for their anxiety and bewilderment, albeit with sharp prickles of disdain. But now a darkness is settling: sympathy for all that weary, tragicomic exhaustion and self-pity is giving way to the first pangs of disgust. There is a truly horrible moment when what appears to be a black-tie dinner party of aged notables shuffles out on to a summer terrace to watch a mysterious gigantic copper drum being turned by horrific means – more awful still because the bemusement and laughter that have been our obvious responses to earlier scenes are no longer appropriate.

The director could be moving away from the more lenient position of the earlier two films and toward something more intractable and disquieting – closer to an imagined focal point of evil and despair that provides a context for that blasted heath of defeat across which the tiny figures have been moving. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence does not have a moment of pure surreal flamboyance like the sacrifice scene in Songs or the dreamlike moving apartment in You, the Living. But it is a progression; the shifting and darkening of mood makes narrative sense in context.

Andersson occasionally, enigmatically, sends his movie back into the past: we see the way that one bar looked in 1943 – the era of Sweden’s tense wartime neutrality – and then another, more raucous pub, with something of Aki Kaurismäki, is weirdly interrupted by a cavalry troop from centuries before. Both scenes are accompanied by a desperately sad traditional Swedish song, with the tune of John Brown’s Body. The surge of sadness these scenes deliver is not distanced or ironised, and does not have any clear cause-and-effect relationship with the rest of what is happening on screen, and yet it is a vital part of this movie-symphony. What an incredible film-maker Andersson is – he has created an entirely unique epic movie-cycle that has to be seen to be believed.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com Peter Bradshaw 23/4/2015 accessed 21/10/16