An opening title card tells us that A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is ‘The final part in a trilogy about being a human being,’ a synopsis which despite its vagueness is an apt summary of director Roy Andersson’s output on the whole. If we want to place A Pigeon… in clearer context maybe we can look to Kalle (Lars Nordh), the melancholy salesman in Songs From the Second Floor (2000), the first in the ‘Living’ trilogy. “It’s not easy being human,” he sighs and as we are introduced to the eccentric, downtrodden residents of Roy Andersson’s tragicomic world we can assume that they have all had the same thought at one time or another.
As with Songs From the Second Floor and You, The Living (2007), the second in Andersson’s trilogy, A Pigeon… follows no strict plot and is instead constructed around a series of vignettes that illuminate the greyest corners of humanity. Andersson’s is a world where magic tricks go spectacularly wrong, traffic jams never end and where the salesmen of novelty joke toys are incredibly miserable, despite their sincere intentions to ‘help people to have fun.’ These two salesmen, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) provide the main narrative thread running through the film yet the story frequently digresses from their forlorn attempts at salesmanship to catch up with characters that are otherwise peripheral or completely unknown to us.
Andersson makes films that explore the difficulties of existing and the physical and emotional vulnerabilities of human beings, therefore the director is willing to force us to consider his characters at their lowest. The world is drained of its colour; clothes, furniture and even the characters’ faces are all varying shades of grey. Moments of joy are rare so when they do arrive they are all the more powerful for it and in A Pigeon…, gladly, there are more of these moments than in Andersson’s previous films. The little girls blowing bubbles from a balcony, the mother head-over-heels in love with her baby in its pram and the kindly bar patrons helping a frail old man into his coat seem to encourage us to do one thing: savour the little things in life. A flashback to the same bar in the post-war years provides the film’s most uplifting scene, in which a hostess gives shots out in exchange for kisses from the handsome sailors that don’t have the money to pay for them. A rousing rendition of the battle-hymn ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory’ accompanies their parade down the bar to pay their dues, wonderfully re-appropriated with lyrics celebrating their bargain: “With kisses we shall pay since we are willing, when we drink at Limping Lotta’s bar in Gothenburg.” The Glory, for once, is not to God but to man. It is a musical refrain that holds its power over us when it is used through the rest of the film, a rare burst of colour to hold back the grey.
There are elements of other filmmakers in Andersson’s films. His static, fixed position shots can be seen most recently in Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross (2014), a film with a similarly dismal outlook. The theatrical feel of his sets and the choreography of his actors are similar to Wes Anderson’s films, notably in the enclosed spaces of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), albeit with a markedly more muted tone, in colour and in narrative. Roy Andersson’s pieces, however, form a very unique whole. Just as we start to accommodate ourselves to the realism/pessimism of his story he delivers an episode that lifts the film out of the mundane and into the fantastic, without breaking stride with the ultra-serious tone. In Songs From the Second Floor we see it when Kalle begins seeing and talking to ghosts, in You, the Living in the bombers looming overhead, those prophesied earlier in the film. In A Pigeon… King Charles XII of Sweden – who died in the 18th Century, we should make clear – enters a quiet bar with his mounted entourage and drinks a glass of water, while his army marches to war outside the windows. The joke salesman, Sam and Jonathan, watch on unperturbed. It is a truly unexplainable scene yet one of the best in the film.
Despite its misery A Pigeon… is frequently funny, its delivery deadpan in the extreme and its insight into human needs and behaviours acute. Sure, the film opens with three encounters with death – three unrelated scenes in which someone is dying or has recently died – however the comedy is not aimed at death itself but at the very human reactions to death. One man, for instance, dies in an airport cafeteria just after paying for his food and, unwilling to let the meal go to waste, the waitress asks if anyone would like it, ‘gratis.’ Surely, we think, no one is going to want a dead man’s food as his body lies cooling on the floor before it, but there is one man at the back who sheepishly raises his hand. As he walks away we can’t doubt his satisfaction, with himself or his prize. This carefully considered, very human eagerness is just one small measure of human ambition which, unfortunately for the characters of Roy Andersson’s films, rarely gets fulfilled. So who are we to begrudge a man a free beer?