by Josh Spanninga
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the final film in Swedish director Roy Andersson’s self-proclaimed “living” trilogy (preceded by Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living). The films fit together nicely as a trilogy not in the sense that they follow the same narrative, but that they all feature Andersson’s dark sense of humor played out through absurd and grotesque situations, all seeking to answer the question of what it means to be human.
Made up of a series of loosely connected vignettes, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch eschews conventional narrative storytelling. Instead it opts to explore the human condition through brief glimpses into its characters’ banal and ill-fated lives, often with uncomfortably hilarious results. In one scene we are introduced to a cashier who ponders what to do with a perfectly good shrimp sandwich and beer after the owner of the meal inexplicably keels over at the checkout; another more surreal scene shows a displaced King Charles XII of Sweden on horseback as he stops by a modern diner to quench his thirst with mineral water.
Throughout the film these distinct, disparate episodes are set up in similar fashion. First, an unmoving camera focuses on a meticulously crafted set, brimming with dull, muted colors. Then our attention is drawn to pasty-white faces as they share small talk, quarrel and philosophize. The beautifully nuanced dialogue holds the viewer’s attention throughout, and no matter how trivial or dire the circumstances may seem, equal attention is paid to all characters and stories. Each scene unfolds almost like a live stage production, and builds up to a punch line that could just as easily consist of a fart joke as it could a severe misfortune. Andersson presents all of this with a surreal, dreamlike quality that expertly blends the extraordinary with the mundane.
While many characters in the film breezily come and go, there are two recurring characters that connect these vignettes together: Jonathan and Sam, a pair of traveling novelty item salesmen. They weave in and out of scenes throughout the film trying to sell fake vampire teeth and other bizarre accessories (including a creepy mask that’s referred to only as “Uncle One-Tooth”). Once Jonathan and Sam show up it’s easy for the viewer to tag along with them as they wander through this absurd world, trying to make sense of the human condition.
In short, it’s a safe to say that A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence isn’t your average film, but that’s exactly what makes it so great. With his eye for quirky details and impeccable comedic timing Andersson has managed to create a world that turns its characters’ woes into poignant comedy, a world that invites viewers to laugh along at life’s cruelty and irony, because in the end maybe that’s all we can do.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is screening at UICA from July 31 — August 13, 2015. Get a full list of showtimes at uica.org/a-pigeon-sat-on-a-branch.
Interested in participating in UICA's movie reviews? Contact Nick Hartman at firstname.lastname@example.org.