A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

Directed by Roy Andersson

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“I said I’m happy to hear you’re doing well.”

Here we have a series of single shot vignettes, ranging in duration from less than a minute to around ten.  In one, all that we see is a woman talking to a baby in a crib, and in another we watch a modern-ish quiet bar become overrun with an apparently woman-fearing medieval king who precedes a large army marching off into war.  The modest set gives no indication of the march of hundreds of uniformed extras who will soon pass by.  Later in the film we return to this same bar as a small percentage of those same uniformed soldiers stagger back from defeat.

The story is stitched together around two salesmen who are occasionally the focus of the scene or more often tangential to the action.  In the bar scene, for example, the action kicks off with their entrance, attempting to sell novelty items but with no real hope of success.  Then the men on horseback enter, and for the rest of the scene the salesmen hide in a corner with the other extras.  We don’t hear from them until we move onto the next vignette.

Their names are Jonathan and Sam, and they are the only friend either of them has left.  Jonathan and Sam live in the same sterile apartment building, they talk with the same difficulty of speech, and they share a dour outlook on their profession.  One of them takes this more personally, thinking more morbid thoughts while the other grows tired of his existential despondency.  After he says a few mean things and apologizes for saying those mean things, they decide to remain friends.

And that’s pretty much the story.

The vignettes, however, invite us into a fully realized world that comments on the same struggle Jonathan and Sam face.  The characters here are often stoic caricatures of some kind of absurdist comic strip.  The moments unfold in static shots that must be (and are) impeccably framed.  They create moving portraits in which oftentimes people rarely move.  Even if there is some kind of action dominating the frame, there always seems to be one or more people who remain deathly still somewhere in the image.  At one point, when the behavior of a horse seemed like it risked interrupting the scene, I marveled at just how impressive a job all those unmoving extras were doing.  It’s not easy to stand still for as long as they often have to here, especially as the action mounts around them.

In the scene with the soldiers marching off to war, for example, one mistake would mean a time-consuming reset, with all those extras returning to their starting point.  That could even just be someone in the corner of the room sneezing at an inopportune time.

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Another such vignette, and the most poignant one, takes place at a different bar in which sits an elderly man hard of hearing.  The bartender and another patron discuss the man while only feet away from him, and the bartender says she thinks he’s been a regular for sixty years.  We then calmly cut to 1943 and see the man in his younger days, sitting in the same bar while an unlikely musical number unfolds around him.  Like with every other moment in the film it reveals itself patiently, and the man only sits there, observing the moment as if he has walked in on one of his own memories, viewing it through a window.  We then cut back to the present, and the bartender and several patrons carefully help the feeble man put on his jacket before leaving.  It’s simple, but because of the manner in which the film is constructed as a whole, devoid of almost any overt emotion, it is devastating.

This is a beautiful film that blends just the right amount of absurdist humor, darkness and optimism.  It ends on a surprisingly light note, with several characters I don’t think we’ve ever seen before reflecting on the idea that ‘it’s Wednesday again already.’  It’s a mundane thought we’ve all had, marveling at what day of the week it is, and to me it signals the shared recognition that time keeps chugging along, through thick and thin.

With one notable exception, just about everything in this film goes uncommented upon.  The quiet moments happen with nobody to observe them (save for the audience), and even the more outrageous moments take place with other characters who either aren’t willing or capable of commenting on them.  It is as if the humans of this film are more primitive beings, unable to reflect on anything that happens before them.  It is as if they have no long term memory and are instead a tangle of impulses and involuntary reflexes.

There is one scene that involves the horrific, quiet slaughter of a lineup of slaves, and it turns out to be a dream of one of the two salesmen.  He then comments on it to his friend, the only moment in which one character really analyzes something we’ve already seen or bothers to even acknowledge it.  He’s bothered by this dream, partially because within the dream he is complicit in the murder as he stands to the side serving champagne to a wealthy audience watching the slaughter take place.

So what a strange little existential film but an oddly reassuring one too, at least if you make it to the end.

Up Next: Triple Frontier (2019), Black Mother (2018), Tremors (1990)

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