Everyone who's spoken to me about movies has, at one point, said or thought the following, "You like those kinds of movies, don't you?" Chances are that this individual has never actually seen that kind of movie, so the sort that they picture in their head is one in which the first shot is of a heavily made-up, middle-aged Swedish couple milling around a room in a museum, in which a stuffed pigeon sits on a branch of a fake tree encased in glass. The camera sits still as they ponder the pigeon. The take lasts about three minutes or so, all the while a benign classical tune plays in the background. No one speaks, and we learn nothing about the characters. Cut to the next scene.
This is, in fact, precisely what happens at the beginning of Roy Andersson's A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the clumsily titled end to a trilogy about how human beings live. It is exactly the sort of inscrutable, arch art film that has most of the population of the world either scratching their heads or running screaming in the other direction. Andersson staunchly refuses to account for his bizarre approach to studying human behavior, leaving the viewer, at best, baffled and, at worst, outraged.
A major reason for this sort of reaction lies in the film's narrative, such as it is. The film is comprised of a few dozen sketches of varying lengths, some involving characters who appear in later sketches, and others presenting people once and only once. An early series of sketches is about people's encounters with death: a man dies of a heart attack while struggling to open a bottle of wine; a terminally ill old woman cries out in agony as her three children bicker over their inheritance; we see the confusion people experience after a man dies in public, leaving his recently purchased lunch up for grabs (someone grabs it). We are then introduced to a pair of disheveled traveling salesman who attempt to hawk novelty items like vampire teeth and a spooky rubber mask using the same, tired pitch every time ("We just want people to have a good time"). Later on, an anachronistically dressed procession of Napoleonic troops march past a pub and seize it so their king can have a drink and ogle the handsome bartender. The film ends with black slaves being forced by white men into a giant contraption which they are forced to operate in order to stave off being burned to death.
By now, you'll know whether you want to see a movie like this. If narrative is not something you demand from your cinema, then Andersson's weirdo, deadpan approach to observing people may be the breath of fresh air you're looking for. In between the more kooky segments are utterly brief yet transcendent moments of quotidian beauty, like when a recently awoken couple share a cigarette while taking in the morning from their window, or when a young man and woman sheepishly tug at each other's naughty bits while lying on the beach with their dog. Andersson treats each tiny slice of life with the same visual style: he points a completely static camera that is set back in a long shot, using a wide angle to capture all the action in a single take, letting scenes play out to their (il-?)logical end each and every time.
There is a constant push-pull between realism and artifice within Pigeon that I found fascinating. Andersson cites Vittoria de Sica's classic neorealist drama, Bicycle Thieves, as a primary influence, going so far as to cast mostly non-professional actors in the major roles. The film is also unflinching in the way it looks at both comedy and tragedy, a hallmark of the neorealist genre. Yet at the same time, Andersson cakes his actors' faces in ghostly pale makeup, perhaps to accentuate what little their faces move when the camera takes them in from a distance. Or, it is so that they will blend in with the aggressively drab environments, which I believe are even grayer than Sweden would allow naturally. The mix of naturalistic life with absurdity hammers home this tension, which would seem to obscure Andersson's ultimate goal in making a movie like this. For me, I believe that he's slotting the mundane and the surreal next to one another, because life is just like that.
Even after ingesting a sugary drink, I still became bored at times, perhaps because Andersson wanted me to. The lack of cutting during the scenes forces you to pay attention to all of the little visual details that show up onscreen (in addition to the necessity of subtitles for this Swedish-language film), but there is frequently—more often than not, I'd wager—nothing actually happening. Many scenes play out silently, or with a character uttering a couple of blasé lines that don't add up to much (although the repetition of the phrase, "I'm happy to hear you're doing fine," gets better with each re-introduction). This means that if you blink, you may miss the punchline of the scene, or what amounts to a punchline. I'm okay with occasionally being bored at the movies, though, as long as the visuals are still pulling their weight. The stark clarity of Andersson's camera, as well as his impeccable composition within the frame, means that there is always something of interest to look at, even if there is no action to speak of. Unlike the storybook, flat compositions of a director like Wes Anderson, the Swede Andersson uses all three dimensions with his actors and objects, making me wish that it were shot in 3D so I could appreciate his style even more.
A movie like A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is catnip to film snobs like me, so there was no question that I'd be purchasing a ticket once it came into theaters. For all of you people who want stuff like a story or whatever, then you'll want to take a pass on it.