A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (★★★★ Empire Review)

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PLOT

One might also reflect on the impossibility of discerning existence of anything that might be called a ‘plot’ in this third collection of mordantly funny existential observations from Sweden’s answer to Chris Morris.

 Few filmmakers, indeed few artists in any medium, have observed and portrayed the banal, everyday frailties and absurdities of human existence with the rapier wit and scalpel-sharp accuracy of Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson. After a 25-year career hiatus (his early work included 1970’s Bergmanesque A Swedish Love Story), Andersson made a Malickian comeback with Songs from the Second Floor (2000), a loose collection of observational sketches featuring ordinary people – often in white face powder and drab clothing, filmed in dreary tableaux – doing everyday things: having sex; playing the tuba; trying to wrest a handbag full of valuables from a dying mother’s grasp. “It isn’t easy being human,” observes one pitiful character, describing Andersson’s oeuvre in a nutshell.

His next film, 2007’s You, the Living, was a similar but arguably superior collection of humanistic sketches which could be seen as horrifically bleak or darkly hilarious, or both. Now, at the age of 72, Andersson completes his “trilogy about being a human being” with a film whose seemingly grandiloquent title is a neat summation of the writer-director’s own observational style – although it’s doubtful the pigeon shares Andersson’s achingly empathetic sense of gloom and despair at the fragility of human existence.

A Pigeon… may be Andersson’s masterpiece, but like Tati’s Playtime, Pasolini’s Salò, or any challenging work by an important artist, it’s not for everyone. There’s fun to be had watching, for example, the exploits of a pair of dolorous travelling salesman selling novelty items, the platoon of 18th century fusiliers who accompany Charles XII to a modern bar en route to the Great Northern War, or the passengers of a cruise ship contemplating the questionable taste of a dead man’s lunch. But towards the end of the film, and thus the trilogy, the film takes a turn for the bleak (the scene with the monkey is indelible, and not in a good way), suggesting that for all Andersson’s humanistic empathy, his prognosis for the future of mankind is as chilly as the Swedish winter.

VERDICT

If Chris Morris had grown up in Sweden watching Jacques Tati and Ingmar Bergman films, he might be making films like this. Based on Andersson’s mordantly funny observations about the human condition, the pigeon – though perhaps not the monkey – has it pretty good. ★★★★

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