Making Nonsense of ‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch…’

All human activities are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure.                                                                                                                                 – Jean Paul Sartre

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This new film from Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, whose full title is A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is a strangely existential and pointless meditation on the human condition. It is often extremely funny if you go along with its absurdity and treat the juxtaposition of images, sounds, and sparse dialogue as a visual and aural journey, much like a symphony, which requires feeling rather than reason to appreciate its beauty.

If you are used to Hollywood films with linear narratives and simply named characters whose actions have an affect on the plot, then you should avoid this film at all costs. There is no plot to be found and almost all of the characters, who are presented briefly through unconnected vignettes, are unnamed. There is no camera movement during the film’s 101 minute running time; instead all shots are static establishing shots which linger on generally mundane scenes of human life: an apartment hallway, an office, a restaurant, to name a few. This filmic technique seems to parallel the film’s simple philosophy — being, in itself, should be enough and all the human ambition, the movement, the rituals we go through daily, and the societal constructs we try to climb are completely pointless and have only led to war, disappointment, greed, and the owning and oppression of others. The entire film feels like a surreal people-watching session which takes place in an alternate reality where modern bar patrons and King Charles VII exist on the same screen — its tone feels akin to Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. 

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There are two characters, Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson) who sell silly novelty items (vampire teeth, a laugh bag, and a creepy ‘uncle one-tooth’ mask) and have the most screen time during the plotless film. They repeat monotonously during their spiels that they are entertainers whose jobs are to bring people happiness (“these items are sure to bring smiles and laughter to any occasion”). These nomadic salesmen come off as symbolic of filmmakers themselves who are attempting to bring joy and laughter amidst the pointlessness of life and can be seen as self-congratulatory. The irony, of course, is that they are ultimately selling something too for their own gain and falling victim to the same useless ambition detrimental to the rest of society. The point, though, is that it is unavoidable; the idealistic philosophy of finding value in existence over everything else is completely incongruent with the human condition and we will always remain in the cyclical trap of our own internal flaws, societal constructs, and possessions. (“It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous.” – Sartre) But since we cannot really make strides towards a philosophy out of sync with our own genetic makeup we might as well do the best with what we have been given and try to enjoy the novelty items.

Setting aside philosophy though, the music in A Pigeon is excellent. There is an uptempo orchestral piece full of strings and an organ that brings levity to the absurd scenes and a repeated song with the lyric “shake your cares away” which underscores the duality of optimism and hopelessness inherent in its existential philosophy. Stomping boots in a dance class, audible crying and whimpering, a ‘laugh bag’ toy that sounds like a maniacal joker, and a screeching monkey are a just a few hilarious sounds throughout the film that make it feel like one long song of random noises and images, which, admittedly, sounds terrible, but is actually very funny and makes for a delightfully unique and wholly enjoyable cinematic experience.

The lack of plot and use of only static shots is a well employed technique that underlines the themes of the film, but it wears thin and begins to feel a little slow after a while. It would have worked much better as a short film around an hour long. Nonetheless, it is one of the oddest, funniest, and most amusing films so far this year. So if you can stomach meandering, slow-paced films with subtitles be sure to seek it out.

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