Three ‘meetings with death’ open this final instalment of Roy Andersson’s darkly comic trilogy about what it means to be human. A man has a heart attack while his wife prepares dinner in the next room, an old woman refuses to let go of her handbag as she awaits death in hospital and a man lies dead on a cafeteria floor while staff debate what to do with the food he’s paid for. In common with his earlier works Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living, Andersson’s trademark farcical music plays out over the tableaux, which convey the frightening inevitability of all human life.
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

Two salesmen guide us through Andersson’s world of magnified absurdity. Their business peddling ridiculous, outdated novelty items which aim to ‘help people have fun’ is at comic odds with their depressive personalities. It’s whacky, black humour but these gloomy characters have less dramatic scale than those in Songs From The Second Floor. As with Andersson’s two previous offerings, ‘Pigeon’ plays out in episodic fragments that occasionally crossover, lively background music bleeding one absurd vignette into the next.

“Andersson’s static camera with deep focus takes in a wealth of details, enhanced by the his use of digital”

Once again, Andersson’s distinctive art style is on full display. His static camera with deep focus takes in a wealth of details, enhanced by the director’s use of digital. Closer to life than the multiple cameras and frequent cutting of conventional films, we’re free to roam about the tableaux ourselves. Andersson’s work feels both constructed, because it is unfamiliar, yet more realistic than its Hollywood counterparts. It looks like a three dimensional painting: a moving diorama.
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

The film is itself inspired by the work of sixteenth century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel which, Andersson describes, “frequently adopted the sweeping perspective of a bird to tell a story of society and human existence”. Andersson’s latest film is intended as an observation of humanity from this objective, all-encompassing perspective, as if by a bird watching from above. The pigeon, “worries deeply about it as I do myself,” says Andersson, and “is astonished that humans do not see an approaching apocalypse, though it is in man’s ability to avoid destroying the future for themselves”.

“In the film’s most surreal vignettes, past merges with present”

It seems the bird has been watching and reflecting on our existence for some time. In the film’s most surreal vignettes, past merges with present. A regiment of early eighteenth century cavalry and their monarch Charles XII burst into a modern-day cafe-bar. It’s a fierce scene, the power and size of the horses amplified by the compact scale of the set. The historical monarch – famed for being most at home during warfare – made desperate attempts to cling onto the Swedish empire which resulted in a devastating Russian defeat and the beginnings of a parliamentarian government. In Andersson’s piercing comment on bloody histories, female customers in the present weep as the bar tender asks them to accept the ‘widow’s veil’.

In it’s concern with Swedish histories, Andersson’s latest film is more distant from British and international viewers than the economic crisis of Songs From The Second Floor. Perhaps recognising this, Andersson entangles colonial officers with his Boliden scandal tableaux, English-speaking men loading African slaves into a metal vat before setting it alight. The Swedish mining company was sued in 2013 for dumping toxic sludge on the coast of Chile in the 1980s which resulted in over 700 cases of arsenic poisoning. Boliden consistently denied responsibility, blaming another company, PROMEL, that was paid to process the waste.Pigeon On A Branch Roy Andersson

Not only does this disturbing episode re-iterate Andersson’s concerns with selfishness and prosperous futures built on atrocious pasts (elderly aristocracy watch the freakish episode while sipping champagne), but it questions whether our unhappiness in this life might be predicated on historical wrongdoings. These are familiar themes in Andersson’s work and Pigeon can be seen as a more detailed, ambitious and mature impression of his World Of Glory short which similarly explored the inconceivable, and yet inevitable, moving forward of mundane life in the wake of tragedy.

“The images of ordinary people coping with the absurdity of life reverberate longest”

In the shadow of the film’s most striking and surreal tableaux, it’s the images of ordinary people coping with the absurdity of life that reverberate longest and prevent Pigeon from becoming joyless. Life’s little humiliations stretch beyond the salesmen’s cringeworthy pitches to construct its background: in one beautifully composed scene unrequited love is glimpsed through a window. Meanwhile, Andersson flags up the platitudes that help us communicate, albeit poorly, and ekes out comedy in debts, simple bad luck and getting old, evoking the passage of time with bittersweet melancholy in an out of character flashback.Roy Andersson Pigeon

If Andersson suggests humanity is unable to fully anticipate impending apocalypse, he acknowledges we’re at least preparing for minor catastrophe. In one of the film’s final vignettes, self-preservation is presented in all its selfish cruelty: a monkey wails in agony in an animal testing lab while a scientist talks nonsense on the phone. The burden of saving humanity – whatever worthy virtues that might comprise – lies only with ourselves, a species that can’t even keep track of what day it is. The final part of Andersson’s ‘living trilogy’ remains predictably elusive about mankind’s chaotic future while we inch blindly toward it.


A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence screened as part of Birmingham’s ninth annual Flatpack Film Festival. You can find all of my posts from the festival here.
This review was first published at Gorilla Film Online.