Poised midway between a horror film and Buster Keaton comedy, Roy Andersson's A Pigeon sat on a Branch (reflecting on Existence) (2014) is intermittently very funny. But it is also disturbing, a essay on human life too clear-sighted and penetrating to shrug off. The gags all have an edge that is not merely ironic, nor simply satirical, but, rather, tragic. Comedy, particularly of the absurdist kind motivating Andersson, can be cruel and mean-spirited. Somehow, Andersson avoids this trap. His film is autumnal, glacially cold, and, yet, also, oddly warmhearted, compassionate, and melancholy.
A Pigeon... is the third of a trilogy of films about "what it means to be a human being." The first two films were Songs from the Second Story (2000) and You, the Living (2007), both astounding pictures and similar in form and dead-pan content to this movie. Andersson is Scandinavia's most famous director of television commercials and he constructs his films from small vignettes, each two to four minutes long -- the vignettes are shot from a motionless camera peering into rooms, corridors, or curiously claustrophobic city streets. Andersson decorates the studio sets where his action takes place with the fanatic and obsessive attention to detail of a TV ad-man -- someone accustomed to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a sixty-second commercial. Each detail in the image is precisely considered and everything is clearly lit: all spaces are exactly articulated into foreground and background, usually a remarkably beautiful landscape of vacant lots or industrial wasteland that seems to have been painted in astounding detail. At the Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota, there are darkened galleries with big living-room-sized dioramas where stuffed animals glare out at you with glass eyes -- the animals are posed in their characteristic habitat amidst detailed rock outcroppings and foliage, distant landscapes painted with trompe l'oeil exactitude close off the lighted boxes where the embalmed and stuffed specimens are displayed. Watching Andersson's film is eerily akin to looking into those displays in the Natural History Museum -- except here we are seeing homo sapiens posed in their habitats, engaged in their customary absurd, or cruel, or futile, pursuits. A Pigeon...like the other films in the sequence has no close-ups, no montage, no moving camera -- the people in the shot often stand motionlessly, contemplating some calamity that has just occurred or that seems about to occur. Andersson's actors are, often, elderly, generally very ordinary in appearance, wearing shabby, genteel clothing and their faces are stark white, the pallor of a waxen corpse; the people move robotically or shamble along like zombies. Each sequence consists of a single shot, designed with terrifying precision. The soundtrack is comprised of a clumsy, club-footed waltz that sometimes plays between sequences, a heartbreaking folk ballad and some singing with the sound of a pigeon cooing off-screen sometimes audible. As far as I can determine, every shot (except one) was made indoors on a sound-stage -- the street shots have the strange, stylized clarity of a Balthus' still life. In only one sequence does the director license himself to use a reaction shot -- and that sequence, which is horrifying, turns out to be a dream, albeit one that seems to invest the entire project with its aura.
Here is an example of the film's peculiar tone: An old man sits alone in a café below street level in Gothenberg. The other patrons at the café, which is also a tavern, ignore him; everyone seems equally miserable, alone, and isolated, although the establishment is surprisingly clean and, even, elegant in its décor. (Whatever its level of existential Angst, Sweden is appallingly clean and tidy.) The waitress has to shout in the old man's ear to communicate with him. She tells one of the other patrons that he has come into the bar every night for 60 years to have his evening shot of whiskey or, I suppose, aquavit. In the next shot, we see the bar from the same angle but it is now 1943: a waitress sings a song about pouring shots for her patrons -- the tune to which she sings is incongruously "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". The patrons also sing in response to her melody, an operatic male chorus. Then, the waitress, also the tavern's proprietor, sings that she will pour shots for those without money in exchange for a kiss. The men line up to kiss the limping bar-owner, the name of the tavern is "Limping Lotte's in Gothenberg" and she dispenses shots to each of them. The film cuts back to the present-day and we see the old man, now scarcely able to move himself, slowly limping out of the tavern -- the waitress shouts "Good Night" to him three times, but the old man is so deaf, he doesn't hear her until the last time she bellows those words to him. "Good night!" he gruffly responds, Under this scene, we hear the music from the preceding image titled as "1943" continuing. At first, the effect of this sequence is grotesque, then, funny, then, strangely poignant -- is the old man remembering something from his youth? Is he fantasizing the exchange of kisses for shots of aquavit? The effect is to create a sense that the old man has a rich interior life almost entirely bottled up inside of him -- he's the kind of nondescript old man to whom we would pay no attention at all; and, yet, like the dour and apparently uncommunicative film, there are great riches within him to be explored. Like everyone else, he contains an entire universe -- and one that is about to be extinguished by death. For death, it seems, is the presence that illumines everything in the picture and gives the images meaning -- the movie begins with three scenes labeled, "Three Encounters with Death". In the first, a fat old man topples over clutching his heart while attempting to uncork a bottle of wine: the snow falls outside the window and the man's wife, running some kind of food processor or grinder, pays no attention to her husband's death in the shot's foreground. In the second sequence, an old woman lies dying in a hospital bed while her elderly children sit around silently glaring at her. The old woman is holding a big purse over her chest like a shield and has told those attending the vigil that she intends to take it with her to heaven. The purse is full of jewels, we are told, and money and, when the woman's bossy son, tries to wrest it from her grasp, she squeals in a high-pitched voice and won't release the purse, the hospital bed, on castor-wheels rolling this way and that during the struggle. Then, we see a cafeteria on a ferry -- a dead man lies on the floor where two stewards have just abandoned attempts to resuscitate him. The ferry's captain stand overlooking the scene. A matronly cashier notes that the dead man has paid for his shrimp cocktail and beer and wonders what to do with it. "Give it away," the captain says. The cashier asks if any of the people in the cafeteria want the dead man's food. One plump fellow is a suit raises his hand in an abashed sort of way and says: "I guess I'll take his beer," slowly crossing the ferry to take the mug of beer back to his table, where he drinks it.
Andersson's film is complex with interactions of various kinds between the sketches -- the ship captain, later, appears as a rather crazed-looking barber, announcing that he has retired from his profession on the sea. He takes a call (the same call that everyone else in the film gets) and his sole customer flees. This customer turns out to be Jonathan, one of two hapless door-to-door salesmen. They carry valises full of vampire fangs ("ordinary and extra-long"), laugh boxes that hoot maniacally when they are squeezed ("a real classic" one of the salesman notes) and a mask of a nightmarish figure called "Uncle One Tooth" that is so hideous that it terrifies customers into fleeing the room. Of course, no one wants their merchandise and those who have purchased it on credit refuse to pay them for these wares. The two salesmen live in a horrible-looking boarding house that is more like a prison than a place of ordinary dwelling -- their creditors come to hound them in this institution, reasonable recompense since we have seen them relentlessly dunning the owners of a novelty shop who owe them money. The two salesmen provide the film with a kind of narrative, albeit one that is relentlessly grim. In Andersson's world, all human pretension comes to naught. In one scene, the King of Sweden on a great charger enters the bar with his lieutenants -- long lines of troops marching toward some 18th century battle with the "wily Russian" pass the tavern's 21st century window. The King of Sweden commands that his officers drive all the women from the bar at the point of the sword -- the two novelty salesman cower against the wall. A man playing a pinball machine is "given the taste of the lash"; he is mercilessly lashed, while the handsome young prince flirts with a boy working as a bartender. Later, the King returns to the tavern, his troops staggering past the window in rags, wounded, one man in bandages leading three troops who have been blinded, carts full of casualties dragged down the street. This time the King asks to use the toilet. "No, he will have to wait," the bartender says. "It is occupied."
Andersson's film is at its best, when it doesn't strain for meaning. There are two particularly beautiful scenes involving lovers that brought tears to my eyes -- in one sequence, a young man and woman are reclining at a beach; the young man cautiously gropes the girl who pretends to be asleep. A big black Labrador dog watches over the couple, restlessly changing position and providing the only real motion in the tableaux. In another sequence, a man with a strangely comical-looking face, a sort of broad, sad-faced clown's visage, morosely looks down from the window of a shabby apartment. A beautiful young woman joins him in the window and shares a cigarette with him. These two scenes surrounded by much grotesque and dismal (if funny) material stand out for their kindness, simplicity, and inexplicable beauty. A sequence in which stereotypical Africans, black silhouettes seen in profile as if figures in a Kara Walker painting, are forced into a immense bronze drum and, then, roasted alive to create a kind of mournful music -- something like a choral work by Arvo Part broadcast from the spinning barrel by trumpet-like extrusions -- seemed to me to belong in a different movie. The sequence has a horrible Kafkaesque power -- it is like a version of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" -- but it seems overly explicit, particularly when a group of superannuated folks appear on a terrace, apparently at an adjacent manor to watch the spectacle while drinking champagne poured into their fluted glasses by one of the novelty salesmen. (The shot of these old people enjoying the spectacle of the roasted African slaves and featuring people in evening gowns and tuxedos -- one of the men looks just like Viktor Sjostrom in Bergman's Wild Strawberries -- also seems incongruent with the rest of the picture, an effect that is signified in two ways: first, this image is the only reaction shot in the whole film and, second, the salesman pouring the champagne says, in the next scene, that the vision of the musical barrel spinning in the hellish flames was a nightmare. More effective, I think, is a horrific image of a crucified chimpanzee being tortured by electrical shocks -- some bloody rags and basins visible in the foreground like the furnishings to a medieval Passion -- while a lab assistant chats on the phone, answering a call that all of the characters receive at one time or another: the call requires the person speaking to say -- "I'm glad to hear that you are doing fine," presumably, something that people repeat to one another over and over again since, of course, in Andersson's film, no one (except the two pairs of lovers) is doing fine at all.