Rotterdam 2015 Review: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE, A Masterpiece
Calling him a cult director seems like a huge understatement, even though we are talking about a rather narrow body of work consisting of three features by the now 71-year-old Swedish master (Swedish Love Story and Giliap belonging amidst the "youthful" missteps before the director´s artistic rebirth). Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007) can simply be considered timeless, having their proper place not only in the Swedish cinematic trove for the easily identifiable and inimitable Andersson's singular poetics.
His latest addition, under the ridiculous English title A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, doesn't differ from the fragmented narrative form he established in his prior two features, consisting of unrelated and semi-related vignettes. A strand revolving around a dire pair of novelty-item sellers, whose names could be Vladimir and Estragon but were actually christened with the less-referential Sam (Nisse Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), meanders through the Calvary of quotidian miseries.
The duo introduces itself as working in an entertainment business, followed by a dry proclamation expressing a lame desire to entertain people. It's an odd gesture from somebody encompassed by an aura of despair, even odder as the said entertainment business means selling fake vampire fangs. It seems that the sorrowful pair of ill-fitted sellers -- Jonathan is always complaining about being mistreated by his business partner -- ventures on a offbeat crusade to bring joy back into people´s life, an element extracted from Andersson's cinematic world that is usually found only in a dream, as in a charming musical piece featuring newlyweds on a moving train in You, the Living. Yet here the crusade finds itself on a road to perdition.
The one-take fixed wide-angle shots positioning the action in the mid-area, saving the rear plane for occasional gag or two, proved to be an effective strategy, forming an integral part of Andersson's modus operandi. Each tableaux has been meticulously composed in clinical symmetry, begging closer inspection to decipher any esoteric secrets that it might conceal in its minimalistic and nit-picky designed sets.
The filmmaker is a philosopher trapped in a painter's body making films, and his enigmatic art direction elevates every take to a self-contained piece, of which the majority can be cut out and shipped to Prado or the Guggengheim to be immortalized in an endless, constant loop. The labour invested in modelling every frame is paid back as Andersson´s existential treatise leaves a permanent imprint in the mind.
No less urgency can be found in the camera angles. In order to provide the best possible angle for the spectacle of absurdity, according to the master´s vision, the director mounts the camera first and lets the set be built around it, adapting it to whatever whims are necessary to yield an eerie ambiance of washed out walls and obsolete furniture, featuring amazing lighting work, and creating a uncanny world of its own, the most apt stage for the subtle, grotesque nature of human existence.
Dostoyevsky is supposed to be the major inspiration for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which doesn't seem so far-fetched when you take into consideration the heavy dose of existentialism that is present. Deadpan and mordant humour, backed up by absurdist ventures, prevents the film from entering the slippery slope of farce and mockery, or milking the irony to the fullest.
Despite a vibe that oozes Samuel Beckett, Andersson doesn´t mask his humanistic face behind a cynical guise. He is willing to show empathy on several occasions, which is one of the reasons why A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence doesn't bear the unbearable lightness of being watched. Off-kilter direction, non-professional actors, and thick mortician's make-up, along with snail-like, ruminative pacing, are verified tools of Andersson's trade, capable of producing magnificently absurd moments; an example would be the frequent discussions by the trailer in regard to the dead man's already-paid meal.
The director facilitates admittance into his peculiar cabinet of absurdities for the inexperienced by proclaiming the film, and in fact the entire trilogy, to be his pursuit to understand what it means to be a human being. Ulrich Seidl's films dissect the same theme, albeit in a different style and form. Both filmmakers share the same rigorous inclination to formalism, however, the Austrian iconoclast opts for explicit, even graphic depiction as a result of his documentary background. Andersson´s work is completely detached from real-world representation, and cocoons his own musings into quizzical and surreal sketches, while never comprising their intrinsic value.
One particular scene in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence offers a interpretation key and may represent what the central motif may be. Soldiers push a group of slaves into a giant drum that shortly thereafter is set on fire. The anguished cries of the dying slaves are amplified for the amusement of the elite who are present, discreetly sipping champagne, absolutely untouched by the unfolding theatre of monstrosity. However, Andersson´s musings reach out to a wider palette of motifs, exceeding the boundaries of inhumanity and exploitation.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence perfectly fits into the trilogy, and will not disappoint aficionados of Andersson´s idiosyncratic poetry. Evading avant-garde pitfalls of incomprehensibility, and not impeding lighter moments such as an impromptu musical number about Limping Lola from Goteborg, his deadpan, human tragicomedy of earthly tribulations is an unparalleled and fascinating piece of cinema.