In the opening scene of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final part of Roy Andersson’s trilogy ‘about being a human’, a man drops dead whilst his wife cooks in the kitchen behind him, oblivious to his ignominious death throes. Immediately it’s clear that the celebrated Swedish director has not drifted either from his signature vignettes or his droll existential musings.
Anyone familiar with Andersson’s oeuvre will recognise the colour filters and meticulously designed scenes peopled by drab white-faced folk. They plod about trying to sell something, get somewhere, or communicate with someone whilst the camera remains fixed, turning us into watchers, rather like the bird of the title – a reference to a pigeon observing the micro-universes of the skaters in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow.
Hapless salesmen are another Andersson staple – symbols of futile materialism, the despair of things without meaning. In A Pigeon we follow Jonathan and Sam, Beckettian sorts who say they are in ‘the entertainment business’. Their drab suitcases contain various fun products: vampire teeth, the laugh bag, which emits a cackle unholy enough to wake the dead, and the hideous Uncle One-Tooth mask.
Meanwhile, further metaphysical musings occur: on her deathbed a woman clutches a handbag stuffed with valuables whilst her offspring try to prize it from her; a dance teacher rejected by the student she adores weeps hysterically (but silently) behind glass; and a girl gets up to recite a poem at school but finds herself describing it instead and receiving applause for her efforts. We are always one remove away from meaning… at the very least.
The past intruding on the present is also crucial to Andersson’s vision. Here, the rather dashing Charles XII of Sweden stops off at a caff for a glass of water on his way to a defeat by the Russians in 1709 that would spell the end of the Swedish empire. Andersson’s love of anachronistic (and often comedic) interruptions questions each age’s desire to relegate our histories of fascism, injustice and imperialism to the past. Rather, he tells us, they’re always with us, they inform us still.
Unsurprisingly Andersson’s idiosyncratic visions are not commercial smashes, but critics now universally rush to sing his praises. However, no one ever mentions how (purposefully) boring his films can be – exquisitely boring, maddeningly boring, like life. In the background of every scene there is a door or window through which we see a passing figure, apartments or a street with people moving past. We keep trying to peer into these other rooms or out of the windows, half-wishing to be somewhere else.
But previously our patience has been rewarded by scenes of extraordinary beauty. It will be a long time before I forget the moment in Songs from the Second Floor (2000) when that film’s hapless salesman, throwing large crucifixes with Christ nailed upon them onto a dumping ground because he can’t sell them, suddenly sees the ghosts that have haunted him rise up from the wasteland and move slowly towards him accompanied by many more of their brethren.
But whilst his latest may not have such philosophically eloquent or visually arresting set pieces there is something rather more hopeful about the last part of his trilogy (the second installment being 2007’s You, the Living). The sense of foreboding and apocalyptic doom, though present, is somehow lighter – more a bemused shrug of the shoulders.
Andersson is an extraordinary filmmaker who brilliantly understands the language of cinema, yet purposefully denies us the constructed rewards of narrative arc; we are never allowed the luxury of assimilation. Instead, he painstakingly draws us into his distinctive materialist universe where all that survives is the machinations of homo sapiens whose cruelty is outdone only by their ridiculousness. In a world without higher meaning, all inhabitants are rendered absurd and unwitting tragedians in a nihilistic drama.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is released in UK cinemas on April 24th