Cert 12a | ★★★★★
“We just want to help people have fun,” intone two ashen-faced salesmen of crummy novelty items. Lord knows the people in this film need the help.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the third part of Swedish director Roy Andersson’s trilogy “about being a human being”, and anyone who’s seen the first two will be familiar with the tone and format. It’s a collection of vignettes loosely connected by recurring characters, and a blacker-than-tar gallows humour. There’s a running theme of communication issues: people deliver rambling soliloquies to nobody in particular, or repeat their lines redundantly, like in a Beckett play. Nobody smiles or moves much, and the Gothenburg they inhabit is sapped of colour and haunted by its past. A Pigeon opens with three deaths in quick succession, and they cast a pall over the film: the overriding impression is of a society in rigor mortis.
If this sounds unremittingly bleak or glib, the genius is that it avoids being either. Music plays an important role in redeeming people at their lowest ebb (setting the scene for a blindsiding choral set-piece). Like the gags, songs recur at critical points throughout the film, bringing together otherwise unrelated characters. And sandwiched between the most depressing sketches, moments of unexpected tenderness leap out and seize you by the heartstrings.
Roy Andersson is 72, and it’s probably safe to say his appraisal of humanity is by now complete. As the notional pigeon sat on a branch, he sees us in all our absurdity, depravity and tenderness. Few directors are able to communicate an entire worldview in a film, and entertain us along the way. Andersson is one of them.