Constructed of gorgeously understated vignettes, which guide us through the grandeur of life by methodically focusing on the smallest but most resonant instants of it, "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" by Swedish writer/director Roy Andersson
won the Golden Lion at last’s year’s Venice Film Festival. Delving into a wide range of quotidian dilemmas via darkly comedic exploits, this episodic tour de force is as insightful as it’s blissfully entertaining and distinctively stylized.
It took 7 years for Andersson to craft this conclusion to his revered trilogy. Now that it’s finally opening on American screens, here are 7 compelling reasons why no serious cinephile should miss its theatrical run.
1. The Endearing Novelty Salesmen
Among the innumerable characters encountered while navigating Andersson’s latest examination of the human condition, two middle-aged friends who are down on their luck are the most memorable. Sam and Jonathan are traveling novelty salesmen whose purpose, as they often reiterate, is to “help people have fun.” They appear recurrently throughout the film as they try to entice costumers to buy items that are mostly suited for a uniquely dark sense of humor. Though they fail repeatedly and struggle to get paid, the straight-faced businessmen seem to truly believe in their mission to bring laughter to others - through their casual misfortunes they achieve their objective. This unusual pair is strangely endearing and superbly embodied by Holger Andersson
, as the overly sensitive Jonathan, and Nils Westblom
who plays Sam, the head of the flawed operation.
2. Precise Cinematography & Delicate Production Design
Like with the two previous films in this unconventional trilogy, Andersson is in absolute control of the frame in each one of the static tableaux that compose “A Pigeon.” Meticulously arranging every element to maximize the storytelling power and layered complexity of every scenario, the director distinctively utilizes the foreground, middleground, and background with painter-like precision. Besides adding visual depth, this technique keeps each tableau dynamic and allows for more than one storyline to develop at once. Similarly, the color palette employed in this installment is strikingly homogenous, which gives the film a timeless and classic atmosphere. Opaque browns, yellows and grays permeate the world from the walls to the last costume in a noticeably conscious and impeccable manner. In order to have that level of artistic control, Andersson constructed each set and fabricated every component of the production design to match his peculiar vision. Cinematographers István Borbás
& Gergely Pálos
were his allies in this task.
3. Absurdist Comedic Genius
Life’s pettiness and it’s ironic unpredictably are transformed into prime material for the absurdist humor in Andersson’s work. A king who will ruthlessly fight empires waits patiently to use an occupied bathroom, a man’s death results in a free beer for another, a lab worker has a meaningless phone conversation about the weather while a helpless monkey is electrocuted, and extra-long plastic vampire fangs are a bestselling product in this subtly ludicrous universe. Delivered in hilariously deadpan fashion the offbeat occurrences tend to be darkly amusing but also very insightful about how ridiculous human existence can be occasionally. With an abundance of laughs, “A Pigeon” is the most sophisticated comedy of the year and an intellectual delight filled with clever gags. Dwelling on our misfortunes has rarely been this comical.
4. Exquisite Score and Music Selection
Whether it’s the cheerful and lively instrumental score by Hani Jazzar
and Gorm Sundberg that adorns the film with an ethereal atmosphere; classic rock tunes like "Lilla vackra Anna" by Norwegian singer Alf Prøysen
and "Shimmy Doll" by Ashley Beaumont, which curiously enough was also used in the final scene of Luis Buñuel
;" or the diagetic songs elicited from several characters, extraordinary music is another exquisite attribute of this intricate creation. One
remarkable musical number arises when a flashback to 1943 turns into a joyous bar sing-along in which young WWII soldiers and Limping Lotta (Charlotta Larsson
), the flirtatious owner, exchange kisses for shots. The melodious chant to the tune of "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" is so genuinely charming that its custom lyrics will ring in your head long after that scene is over and whether you speak a any Swedish or not.
5. Profound Observations on the Human Condition and History
Candid and irreverent, Andersson’s philosophical contemplations come from mundane situations and daily tragedies. What’s usually humdrum becomes unexpectedly profound under the director’s watch. We learn that sometimes our physiology conflicts with our desires when a ship’s captain is forced to become a barber because he suffers from seasickness, that those who work to bring us joy - like the novelty salesmen - are often the saddest ones at heart, or that we rely on phrases like, “I’m happy to hear you are doing fine,” as a way to relate to others even if these are often just empty expressions. There are countless moments like these in “A Pigeon,” and in all of Andersson’s works for that matter, that capture glimpses of pure humanity. Although we often erroneously dismiss them as meaningless, they are definitely the fibers of existence: two little girls popping soap bubbles, a man and his lover having a post-coiatal cigarette, or an elderly man having a drink at the same bar he’s visited for over 60 years. As a poignant bonus, the filmmaker includes a nightmarish sequence condemning the horrendous effects of European colonialism - and it's visually bold in its depiction.
6. A Marvelous Ensemble Cast
A myriad of actors inhabit the elegantly pale episodes to assemble a marvelous ensemble cast. From Viktor Gyllenberg
playing a heartbroken King Karl VII whose battles are both romantic and territorial, Lotti Törnros
as a flamenco teacher infatuated with a young dancer (Oscar Salomonsson), or Jonas Gerholm
as a lonely lieutenant who seems to always miss his engagements by unlucky chance. Others in even smaller parts like those who briefly talk on the phone, commuters waiting for the bus, hopeless bar patrons, imperial soldiers, and Jonathan and Sam’s unwilling clients, contribute to the glorious brilliance of this one-of-a-kind masterpiece. They are Andersson’s most resourceful and nuance tools to complement his artfully designed settings. It's not surprising that many of them have work with the Swedish auteur in multiple projects.
7. Brings a Masterful Trilogy to a Close
and Leaves You Wanting MoreSeven years
after “Songs from the Second Floor” started this trilogy about what it means to be a human being, “ You, the Living” continued analyzing our greatest triumphs and most harrowing defeats. With “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” Andersson completes one of the most astonishingly original set of films in modern cinema and cements himself as the most acclaimed Swedish filmmaker of our time. If you’ve seen any of his earlier works it won’t take much convincing for you to surrender to this must-see philosophical wonder. On the contrary
, if this is your late introduction to his brainy cinematic magic, you’ll want to go back and binge on his genius before you join the rest of us in praying that it doesn’t take seven years to see another of Roy Andersson
’s thoughtfully uproarious masterpieces.
"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" opens Friday July 17 in La at The Cinefamily and in other cities across the country