A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Year: 2014
Production Co: Roy Andersson Filmproduktion AB
Director: Roy Andersson
Writer: Roy Andersson

First off, the pigeon sat on the branch is in the first scene and never mentioned again, sitting – stuffed - on a branch in a museum exhibit while a schlubby bloke visiting the museum stares impassively at it.

The film actually could have been called anything because exactly what it is remains a mystery. That's not to say it isn't something interesting or distinctive to behold – you've certainly never seen anything like it before.

Though you wouldn't have much idea at the time (apart from the number of scenes they appear in), the main story concerns two dour and depressed novelty gag salesman carrying their suitcase of wares around a grey, grimy Stockholm, trying to stay afloat and keep their frail business partnership intact.

We see them hawking their stuff in a random store to a disinterested woman, talking to one of their suppliers who wants to be paid, arguing with each other about the decent hour to tone noise down in the grim confines of the guesthouse they live in, deciding to split and deciding to stay together in a series of scenes in which neither of them ever smile or talk above a disinterested monotone and barely break expression. It's very theatre of the absurd, tragedy-as-comedy type stuff.

But there's far more. A man who appears to be an ex soldier stands outside a bar anxiously waiting for the appointed time of a meeting inside. A scientist looks glumly out a window while the moneky (hopefully CGI or animatronic) she's about to experiment on is strapped, prone, into some instrument. A man keels over, dead, in an airport cafeteria after he's paid for his meal, so the server asks everyone present if they want it.

A troupe of dancers practices while their female instructor, apparently in love with the male lead, literally can't keep her hands off him. While patrons sit around drinking in a bar, a horseback army passes by on the street, the royal figure leading them bought inside and demanding to be served. More than one character from across the variously connected vignettes says the same line; 'I'm happy to hear you're doing fine'.

And the story of the two gag salesmen, Sam and Jonathan, pops up here and there amongst all those seemingly unrelated scenes. Though the film gives you no real sense of it, the main plot seems to be about them, their miserable existence a comic juxtaposition from the supposedly fun stuff they're selling.

That's all the plot on screen, anyway, and I have to confess a few weeks later I had trouble remembering a lot of it (most of the details I listed above are stuff I only remembered when I watched the trailer online).

What I do remember is the creative milieu. Every scene is shot from a locked off camera that captures the room/space depicted and nothing more, everyone in a medium shot with no close-ups, all of it with a minimum of movement and with each entire scene looking like a barely-moving painting.

The staging was so precise, every element in the frame so purposefully situated and with any motion carefully choreographed, it actually made me think of Tarantino's films where every sequence is so finely designed and executed.

The art direction is very particular too, the interiors grimy and all looking slightly green (in another weird evocation you'll be reminded slightly of The Matrix), scenes set outside feeling frigid, any sunlight visible looking sickly and harsh. And it's all accompanied by a lilting, violin-plucking soundtrack that sounds like something between gallows mirth and a barely-concealed sense of threat.

It's certainly not a movie to enjoy, exactly, and the comedy is cerebral rather than visceral – you'll barely raise more than a chuckle – but it's worth watching for another example of a talented director knowing what he wanted to depict and writing his own rules about what cinematic language can be.

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