I always struggle when friends ask me what a film by the Swedish director Roy Andersson is like. The conversation has usually started with me saying ‘I’ve seen this great film; you should see it too!’ Then they ask, ‘what’s it like?’, or ‘what’s it about?’ The trouble is, Roy Andersson makes films like no other that you have ever seen. As Robbie Collin wrote in the Telegraph:
The Swedish director’s Living Trilogy, which began 15 years ago and concludes with this sublimely ridiculous piece of film-making, stands apart from the rest of cinema at such a remove that trying to make sense of it in words is beside the point, and perhaps impossible. You just have to watch it, then grab a net and try to coax your soul back down from the ceiling.
I’ve just seen Andersson’s latest, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third film in what an opening title calls ‘the final part of a trilogy about being a human being’. It is as memorably absurd and disturbing as the previous two, but much bleaker in tone. Like the earlier films, it contains scenes that, days later, I can’t get out of my mind.
Pigeon shares all the familiar characteristics of the two previous Andersson films, Songs From the Second Floor and You the Living: a series of meticulously-staged tableaux which feature worn-out individuals, their faces grey with the worries of existence, haplessly failing to connect with each other. Cumulatively their effect becomes a disturbing meditation on the emptiness, absurdity and alienation which Andersson sees permeating western society.
If anything, the tone of Pigeon is darker than the previous pair of films. It begins with one of those silent film captions: ‘three encounters with death’: in three short, macabre vignettes Andersson states the case for the absurdity of our existence: isolate from each other we face the inevitability of death, a banal event after which daily life will continue to grind on in never-ending banality.
A corpulent man suffers a fatal heart attack while uncorking a bottle of wine while his wife, seen through an open doorway and unaware of his tragedy, continues to sing while preparing their meal. A woman on her deathbed, clutching grimly to her handbag because she wants to take it with her to heaven, while her family try to wrench it from her grasp. A man drops dead in a cafeteria on board a cruise ship, but instead of caring about his death the ship’s captain is concerned about what to do with the meal that the dead man had already pay for.
There is never a storyline in an Andersson film, nor any character development. The only tenuous thread connecting the scenes in Pigeon is the pair of travelling salesmen who we see attempting to persuade shopkeepers – or anyone – to buy their limited wares – vampire fangs, laughter bags (‘a classic’) or a rubber mask of ‘Uncle One-Tooth’. Their doleful sales pitch always concludes with the sad refrain: ‘We want to help people have fun’.
In the opening scene, a man stares at museum vitrines containing stuffed birds – including the titular pigeon on a branch. He is observed silently by a woman who stands in the doorway, just as we study them both as if they were specimens of a strange species presented for our interest.
Andersson has explained that the film’s title is a reference to Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow which depicts a rural wintertime scene, with some birds perched on tree branches. Andersson imagined that the birds are watching the people below, contemplating what they are doing. For Andersson the title of the film is a “different way of saying ‘what are we actually doing?'” Every so often, in later scenes, we hear the sound of a pigeon – out of sight – cooing and presumably reflecting on what the scene we are watching might suggest about the nature of existence.
Like Andersson’s previous films (and the brilliant adverts he produced for Swedish TV in the 1990s), Pigeon is composed of a series of absurdist comedy sketches about people who are too self-involved to empathise with each other (though in this case the laughs become decidedly less frequent as film goes on). In a key scene, I think Andersson comments on how some people may just not see things the way he does. One of the travelling salesmen is seated with a couple of other customers at a roadside cafe. A young woman comes by, and stops to lean against the buvette counter in order to shake a stone from her shoe. After she has left, the salesman turns to the other customers and remarks, ‘She had stone in her shoe.’ The others shrug, ‘So what?’
‘It was nice.’
‘What’s nice about a stone in your shoe?’
‘It was nice when she took it out.’
Andersson sees life as the stone in the shoe – a puzzle without a solution, an endless series of bleak, frustrating moments of disappointment and failure. If there is an explanation of the puzzle, Andersson suggests it lies in our alienation from each other, our inability to empathise. In Pigeon the presence of mobile phones is ubiquitous, but everyone we see with this marvel of communication is having the same conversation which involves repeated assertions that ‘I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.’
Apart from the two travelling salesmen, there are a few other recurring characters, including a military man who keeps missing appointments (his voicemail informs him repeatedly, ‘You have no new messages’), and a plump flamenco instructor and a male pupil for whom she burns with unrequited lust.
If mobile phones signal that the film is set in the present, there are several scenes in which the past abrupt intrudes into the present. The most benign of these shows the clientèle in a bar discussing an old regular who’s been visiting for more than 60 years, before the scene shifts to the same bar in 1943 (which just happens to be the year of Andersson’s birth), now presided over by ‘Limping Lotta’ who is happy to let anyone who lacks money pay her with a kiss. It’s a scene that seems drenched in nostalgia as the regulars sing:
A shilling for a shot glass
Is the price you have to pay
When you drink at Limping
Lotta’s bar in Gothenburg
We with pockets without shillings
How can we pay If we are willing
When we drink at Limping
Lotta’s bar in Gothenburg
With kisses you shall pay
If you are willing
With kisses you shall pay
If you are willing
Clip: Limping Lotta
Is it merely a coincidence that in 1943 Sweden (neutral in the Second World War) took in nearly all of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews? (In the summer of 1943, the German authorities had decided to deport Denmark’s Jewish population to concentration camps, but the Danes successfully ferried all but 450 of the Jews across the straits between Copenhagen and the Swedish mainland, across waters patrolled by German gunboats, in an unprecedented rescue effort. Once in Sweden, the Danish Jews were granted asylum and taken in by Swedish families.)
In another bar, present-day business is interrupted when soldiers dressed in 18th century uniforms fling open the double doors and King Charles XII rides in, mounted on his horse. As the scene goes on, through the picture windows we see endless ranks of soldiers marching to the front ‘to fight the Russian’. Later, the wounded and bedraggled remains of the King’s forces, defeated at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, are seen heading in the other direction, as their widows wail. (Interestingly, Poltava is located in modern-day Ukraine.)
The two most disturbing scenes come in a section introduced with the title ‘homo sapiens’, and they certainly wipe any smiles left on faces. The first is in a research laboratory where a woman in a lab coat intones on her phone, ‘I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine’, seemingly oblivious to the cries of pain from a monkey in the foreground, writhing as powerful electric shocks are administered to its brain.
But in the most shocking tableau, a party of pith-helmeted British soldiers herd shackled and fearful African men, women and children into a giant rotating drum before setting alight a fire beneath it. As the agonised movements of those incarcerated turn the terrible machine, their cries are turned into haunted music for the edification of an elegantly-dressed crowd of wealthy folk watching the scene from the terrace of a nearby mansion as waiters pass among them serving champagne. As a symbolic representation of colonialism and slavery this scene is unsurpassed in its rage and savagery. I have not been able to get it out of my head.
Clip: Karl XII
On YouTube there are four compilations of Roy Andersson’s hilarious TV adverts, in which it’s possible to discern the some of the same characteristics on display in Pigeon: just search for ‘roy andersson commercials’ and treat yourself.
- Guardian review: a unique hallucinatory trilogy
- Roy Andersson: ‘I’m trying to show what it’s like to be human’ (Guardian feature)
- Figurative and Abstract: An Interview with Roy Andersson (MUBI)
- You, The Living: sad but funny (blog post)
- Songs from the Second Floor (blog post)