A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)
Director: Roy Andersson
Roy Andersson’s final part to his Living trilogy is a gentle bedtime story about the most primitive intricacies of the human experience. Stylistically consistent with its predecessors, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is composed of simple, at times minimalistic, portraits of the moments in which we’re most beautifully and sadly human. The film begins by several title cards including “Three Meetings with Death” which is followed by three different death scenarios. The “meetings” range from spontaneous (a man falls dead while uncorking a wine bottle for dinner) to comically grave (a dying hospitalized mother tightly clasps to her jewelry-filled handbag as her three kids try to yank it away from her). Later the film mainly follows two salesmen, attempting to sell vampire teeth, silly masks, and other gags, and their travels among indebted and uninterested customers.
Interspersed amid the salesmen’s adventures are small side stories, limited to a shot or two, about distinct human qualities. The side stories personally intrigued me more than the main plot line. Bare of dialogue, if not sound altogether, the side stories paint lovers sharing a cigarette by a window, a dance class led by a lustful older woman yearning for a younger student, a cleaner on her knees talking on the phone quietly. We no longer wonder who these people are or why Andersson is telling, or more accurately showing, their stories; we simply absorb the subtle images and enjoy the bliss, longing, or loneliness reflected off the screen and deep into us. Nevertheless, when characters voice their thoughts, the dialogue they share can be just as effective as silence. The characters usually get into juvenile debates, even if lightheartedly, about important issues such as emotional maturity and manipulating people as well as more commonplace discussions like the importance of keeping track of time.
Key motifs throughout the film include money, status, and sadism. In one scene, black prisoners are forced into a huge cylindrical container which then rotates over a lit fire. An eerie image, not-so-subtly reminiscent of Nazi “ovens” especially that as the container is rotating with smoke rising in the background, a curtain unveils a group of aristocrats, on the opposite side, in formal dress being served wine as they watch the smoke dance around the container. The notion of atrocity as entertainment reinforced by apathetic spectatorship is demonstrated silently with no expressed anguish or panic. A scene that tells so much about today’s heartless society in two shots and zero words.
Andersson’s shots can be easily identified by their simplistic composition, pale color scheme, and static camera. At first alienating at high doses, this style has a rather numbing effect on the audience however after getting acquainted with it, other prominent and elegant features come into focus. Andersson is a master of deep staging and his trilogy is an epitome of utilizing the frame to its maximum capacity. Deep focus is almost always used in every single shot but that’s not the only technique employed to create the signature depth which characterizes Andersson’s style. His shot design typically includes hallways, windows, doorways, and reflections with movement in the background all of which are elements that provide a beautiful visual depth to the shot. In addition, Andersson’s camera is never positioned centrally, his shots are asymmetrical; instead he places the camera slightly to the left or to the right so that room corners are at the center of the frame – another inventive technique to embed his shots with an almost tangible dimensionality.
Roy Andersson’s film may not be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s no blockbuster or innovative indie but perhaps it’s precisely because of its unique natural portrayal of reality that it’s not mainstream, afterall not all of us find real life appealing or enchanting but we’re thankful someone, an artist, Roy Andersson does.