The third part of Roy Andersson’s trilogy on the human condition, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is, like its predecessors, a unique masterpiece.
All static frames, without a close-up in sight (or a medium shot, for that matter), Andersson is a master of careful, comic framing.
Most shots of Andersson’s vignette-based film, which alternates between the plight of two under-accomplished gag-gift salesmen, King Charles XII, and a host of other characters both past and present, start with at least one person – often more – standing perfectly, tableaux-vivant-still.
The film is yellow, brown, and ocher. It features a cast with garish white face paint as though they’re wearing a sad death mask, and/or are self-aware stage actors. Both feel true.
Andersson is so concerned with depth in his film. There are many moments where a door will be slightly cracked in the background-
-or where someone opens a door in the background-
-to further emphasize that depth. It’s amazing how these small changes really add some spatial release to each scene. It becomes almost like a game: how will each scene slightly change? What will happen in the background? Will background be more important than foreground or vice versa?
There are so few scenes that occupy more than one consecutive shot. One’s an absurd, frightening, gorgeous (and I must assume: controversial) nightmare:
Both scenes warrant more coverage than their predecessors. They make up the climax of the film (though climax should be used loosely in an Andersson film; and also – there may be a different sort of climax in here as well). Also, because we’ve become so accustomed to the one shot/one vignette setup, these moments are a real surprise. You almost expect a trick to interrupt or dialogue to reveal a time jump. When nothing of the sort happens it’s an odd impact: like the story has suddenly found cohesion just because it’s adhered to more traditional structure for a few moments.
There’s an argument I think that the climax of the film is actually just sprinkled throughout. There are vignettes in Pigeon that are anomalously happy. At least two of them also have probably the least depth in the film:
These moments are separate from the protagonists, so it’s a narrative stretch to call them actual, structural climaxes, but these parts are an emotional abnormality in the movie giving them some real weight.
The first and third of those images above also have obvious, noteworthy similarities – shot from below, people look out of windows as though looking on, or ignoring, the ignominious life below them (i.e. the rest of the film).
That second image on the beach is also different. It’s outside of the city limits, unlike anything else in the film. The only remnant of the rest of Pigeon is a building barely visible over the right horizon.
Above all, like Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is funny and sad. It’s deadpan and slow. It’s carefully composed and ironic.