Sunday 7 February 2021

From the archive: "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence"

Of all the aesthetics presently at play in world cinema, the ultra-deadpan philosophical comedy of Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson may constitute the second most acquired taste after his quasi-namesake Wes.

The static, low-energy sketches that made up 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor and 2007’s You, the Living operate on their own frequency, in their own meticulously constructed worlds; though these works merit big-screen appraisal – for, beyond the photographer Gregory Crewdson, no-one is presently making more thorough use of deep focus than Andersson – they would have a similar effect if chanced upon on TV at two in the morning: they demand a response along “What on earth is this?” lines.

Other critics reportedly incurred ruptured sides and spleens from laughing at Andersson’s latest A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, billed as “the final part of a trilogy about being a human being”; I’ll confess to finding my funny bone tickled lightly but persistently, for the danger with Andersson’s hypoglycaemic drollery is that, although fun in small doses, it can wear off – or start to seem wearisome – over the long haul.

The closest reference point would be Jacques Tati, but everything that is dynamic and inventive about Tati is, in Andersson-land, toned down and overlaid with a very Scandinavian dourness: the walls in Pigeon are painted in the functional grey-green of hospital waiting rooms, the characters made up to look like corpses. Where other comedy directors use the screen as a particle chamber to fire gags and ideas across, Andersson makes a point of draining the life out of each frame, the better to remind us how close we are to that ultimate punchline, death.

The eponymous bird is introduced, stuffed and mounted, in a museum display case; we then proceed through what are billed as “three meetings with death” before being introduced to the film’s focal points. These are Sam and Jonathan (Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson), novelty salesmen – flogging plastic fangs from a briefcase – whose mutual dependency lend them the air of a shabbier Laurel and Hardy. Through these two, the film establishes its philosophical position: as no Andersson character has ever once broken into laughter, there seems no real point in them going on, yet they go on all the same.

The effect of the tamping down is that certain scenes attain a heightened absurdity, as when a figure on horseback trots into a conventionally appointed bar to chase out the women and announce the arrival of King Charles XII (1682-1718) on his way to battle Russians. The lavish military parade that follows, recalling a similar episode in Songs from the Second Floor, garners a sublimely delayed pay-off as the soldiers hobble back in the opposite direction in rags and tatters. Defeat, in the Andersson universe, is an inevitability.

Whether you find this profoundly amusing or just oddly diverting will be a matter for personal interpretation; comedy remains the most subjective artform, and a couple of scenes towards the end – involving a monkey undergoing shock treatments, and colonialists shepherding African slaves into a vast, heated drum – cross the boundary between funny-ha ha and funny-bizarre. It remains, undeniably, singular filmmaking: both of this earth and yet not of it, it’s like very little you will have seen before – a commendation that holds even if you’ve witnessed Andersson’s previous tracts.

(MovieMail, April 2015)

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence screens on Channel 4 tonight at 2.15am.

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