No Surprises
By Adam Nayman

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Dir. Roy Andersson, Sweden, Magnolia Pictures

The traveling salesmen who wander through Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence don’t have much to offer prospective buyers. Their single briefcase contains only plastic vampire teeth (in two sizes, including “extra long”), some Max Shrek-ish latex masks, and a few “laugh bags”—novelty pouches that emit tinny, high-pitched giggles when given a gentle squeeze. Perceptive critics have conflated these pale, rumpled sad sacks with their creator: they’re humble, hard-luck purveyors of entertainment in a world whose inhabitants could surely use a chuckle. But while I agree with the comparison, it’s not necessarily a flattering one. Pigeon is the third part of a “trilogy about being a human being” (to quote the film’s opening title crawl) that also includes the excellent Songs from the Second Floor (2001) and the mostly marvelous You, the Living (2009). And at this point, the “laugh bag” has become an all-too apt emblem for the director’s brand of canned, prefab absurdism.

No less than Michael Haneke or Jacques Tati (whose cinemas he might be said to combine, along with a pinch of his hero, Ingmar Bergman), Andersson is a master of his own aesthetic. Like its predecessors, Pigeon is an anthology of sketches without an overarching plot, although some of the situations and characters are returned to more than once. There are sequences that rank with the best of anything he’s ever done in terms of staging and execution. Amongst the various episodes, which are, as per usual, set in a drably stylized Scandinavian society and dispersed across a vast ensemble cast, three set pieces stand out. In one, a beer hall presided over by a limping female proprietor plays host to a group sing-along for a company of soldiers shipping out to war (it’s a flashback); in another, a roadside dive is invaded by a company of seventeenth-century fighters en route to the Battle of Poltava (they seem to be time-travelers). Finally, and close enough to the film’s conclusion that it plays like a climax, a cohort of white military men are seen herding a group of Africans into a massive iron container and standing guard as a flame is lit underneath and it begins to spin like a chicken on a spit.

Each of these set pieces is superbly executed within Andersson’s trademark long-take style, and the dichotomies they set up—between past and present, reality and fantasy, and comedy and melancholy—are potent and suggestive. They are all also basically copies of scenes that the director has done before. The barroom musical number rehashes the subway choir of Songs from the Second Floor, while the spectacle of the ancient infantry men marching in perfect formation down the road through the café windows evokes the earlier film’s ending, when a massed company of zombies suddenly rouse themselves to stalk through an empty field (itself a nod to Abel Gance’s J’accuse). Lastly, and most overtly, the obviously provocative tableaux of the rotating torture chamber recalls the ornate communal sacrifice of a blindfolded child in Songs, and the indelible first shot of Andersson’s 1991 short World of Glory, with the concentration camp imagery substituted out for signifiers of colonial slaughter.

There are two ways to interpret these similarities. One is that Andersson is a filmmaker in thrall to certain visual and thematic ideas, and that he can no less help repeating himself than the other great one-note-humpers in film history (including Tati and Haneke). From the auteurist point of view, consistency is something to be prized, and the fact that he’s officially positioned Pigeon at the end of a trilogy means that it has to do some summing up. On the other hand, Andersson’s strength has always been the way that his one-shot, generally one-joke vignettes feel spontaneous even within their rigidly ritualistic particulars. At his best, he’s capable of both genuinely startling in-camera manipulations of mise-en-scène and more ephemeral yet no less skillfully engineered feelings of epiphany. These converge in the remarkable sequence in You, the Living where a newlywed couple lounge in their bedroom so peacefully that it takes us a while to notice that the scenery outside the window is moving, and they’re actually being propelled through the countryside in a kind of mobile love nest—a wonderful metaphor for the intimacy, elation, and hurtling momentum of young love.

Andersson also riffs on this scene in short interstitial bits in Pigeon depicting characters who actually seem happy. Noticeably, he locates them on the peripheries of the nameless city that looms threateningly in the distance, as when a boy and girl lounge quietly with their dog on a beach. These scenes evince fleeting, modest moments of fulfillment amidst the surrounding pile-up of guilt, despair, and poverty, and they work smartly within the overall design, which is to say that they’re more strategized than deeply felt. This is arguably the problem with the film as a whole. Andersson is a virtuoso at whipping up blackly comic bits that touch sensitive, universal nerves: a zaftig flamenco teacher mooning over a svelte student; a dying woman desperately clutching her purse as her avaricious son tries to snatch it away. What he’s not so good at—or more accurately, what he hasn’t ever really tried—is clarifying the stakes that he’s playing for. Is he merely a mordant caricaturist or are these sometimes massively scaled widescreen set-ups actually trying to fill in some bigger pictures? It’s not that it has to be either-or, or even that it can’t be both at once. It’s just that if it’s the former, then the whole conceit of a trilogy riffing on existence comes off as rather grandiose. If it’s the latter, then the actual range of observations Andersson has spent fifteen years amassing seems in the end rather narrow.

The Golden Lion that Pigeon won last fall in Venice is understandable as an unofficial lifetime achievement award for a talented filmmaker who has gone further than most in putting his money where his mouth is. Songs from the Second Floor was a decades-long undertaking financed by the money that Andersson made from his main career as the creator of Swedish television advertisements (some of which look like dry runs for bits in the features). The nature of its financing ultimately made the film’s anti-commercialist critique—recall the poor fellow trying to hawk a surplus of large wooden crucifixes—all the more acidic.

There is a difference between illustrating cynicism and practicing it, and I’m sympathetic enough to Andersson’s project and his sensibility to concede after several months of disappointed reflection that Pigeon’s redundancy is merely a case of diminished artistic returns than a lazy repackaging job. In the film’s final shot, a group waits at a bus stop, and the Beckettian implication is that nothing is coming for them. Their expectant faces make for a memorable grace note to a film that seems to cast its director’s vote once and all for absence over presence in the “Is God dead?” debate, and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Andersson could possibly add as a future postscript. At 75, he may no longer feel obliged to take his time, but let’s hope that, however long his next period of contemplation, he ends up venturing out on a different limb.