Why you should care

Because all of us want to know why on earth we’re on earth.

Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is more humble than its title and description might suggest. It’s only the fifth feature by this elder statesman of Swedish cinema, whose career spans nearly half a century. And it’s so idiosyncratic that it must reflect the filmmaker’s unfettered vision.

A series of loosely related vignettes, it shifts between light comedy and outright absurdity. People meet their end in the first few minutes. Later on, a long-dead monarch (centuries dead!) shows up in a bar. Two traveling salesmen gradually emerge as the de facto protagonists. They make a living selling novelty items: a rubber mask called Uncle One-Tooth, something called a laugh bag and plastic vampire teeth (their longtime bestseller).

They make a living selling novelty items: a rubber mask called Uncle One-Tooth, something called a laugh bag and plastic vampire teeth (their longtime bestseller).

Andersson’s film — available on iTunes and Google Play and likely to feature on year-end lists — at times feels like a novelty itself. But as increasingly substantive connections form between the vignettes, it takes on a shape greater than the sum of its jokey parts. “We want to help people have fun,” one of the itinerant merchants uses as a pitch line as they hawk their wares from one store to the next; ditto Andersson, who also wants to help people make sense of, and laugh at, our strange plight as members of the human race. His light comedy is that of a man who’s seen the worst of the world and learned that laughter is often the only viable response. There’s a hint of resignation, if also acceptance, to all this; many films try to be both understated and profound, though few feel as genuinely unassuming in their approach as Andersson’s.

The title is a reference to Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow, a painting that also factors into Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. In it a group of men and their dogs returning from a trek into the wild with little to show for it. One interpretation is that human endeavors tend, like this hunting party, to yield little success. Andersson appears on board with that take but adds his own wry humor.

We never see the painting in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, but we hear a student talk about it. A poem she’s written shares its title with that of the film and, true to oddball form, we hear her summarize its contents to a teacher rather than actually recite it. Andersson leaves it to us to imagine the rest. Whether he’s confident we’ll figure it out on our own or doesn’t care if we do is hard to say.

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