World Built, by Matt Warren
If you’re reading Battleship Pretension, then clearly you’re no slouch when it comes to film appreciation. You’ve undoubtedly seen it all—from blockbuster blow-‘em-ups to art house what-the-fucks. You’re a jaded cinematic black belt, a hyper-literate consumer and connoisseur of the medium’s many different perversions and permutations. And, if you’re anything like me, the one thing you hunger for deep within your fetid, Cheetoh-dust-coated guts more than anything else is a fresh and new approach to filmmaking. A pure cinematic vision that leaks out of the projector fully-formed and is utterly transporting. Something incomparable, uncompromising, and totally self-assured. Something like Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.
This isn’t to say Pigeon is totally without precedent. It’s the first (and only) Roy Andersson movie I’ve seen, but the film is actually the third part of a loose thematic-and-stylistic trilogy preceded by 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor and 2007’s You, The Living. And from what I’ve gleaned through some hasty and professionally irresponsible Wikipedia research, Songs and You are both more or less similar in their structure: a series of loosely-connected, wryly comic vignettes staged with exacting precision and compositions so rigid they’d cause even Wes Anderson’s sunken ivory chest to cinch tight with anxiety.
The formula is deceptively simple. Fixed wide shot of a meticulously arranged environment—café, dance studio, pub, apartment flat, etc.—populated by slow-moving, virtually somnambulistic human characters playing out (in very long takes) petty human dramas, which often devolve into Chaplinesque physical comedy. Hard cut to black, then on to the next vignette. Occasionally, these story threads are revisited. Just as often, they’re not. The sedate comic pace and minimalist camerawork suggests the influence of early Jim Jarmusch, while the surreal expressionistic flourishes call to mind Terry Gilliam and Luis Buñuel—with a touch of oddball outliers like The Fall’s Tarsem or Cremaster 3’s Matthew Barney thrown in for good measure. It all adds up to something completely unique and bizarre: a visually immersive, hypnotically dense comic nightmare that’d seem just as native projected onto the wall of a modern art museum as it would onto a movie screen. I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like it.
The closest thing Pigeon has to central characters are Jonathan and Sam (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom, respectively), two morose, comically inept novelty items salesmen living doors apart in a drab government housing annex. The salesmen’s trials and tribulations are revisited often throughout the film’s 100-minute runtime and play out with a surprising degree of heart and humanity despite Pigeon’s otherwise oppressive formalist chill. There’s also the march of an inexplicably anachronistic Swedish cavalry toward the battlefront, rudely interrupting a sleepy afternoon at a roadside juke joint. Several characters receive a phone call and express cryptic relief that the unheard person on the other end is “going to be fine.” There’s a lovestruck dance instructor, a monkey getting electroshock, and a debate about what to do with a dead man’s beer. We see an elderly pub patron in present day then flashback to his time drinking in the exact same location 50 years before. Characters monologue to camera about their fears and disappointments. Pigeon is a sprawling sketchbook of philosophical half-tangents and anthropological observation, all unified under Andersson’s exacting eye. It will either depress you horribly or fill you with cautious optimism. It’s beautiful and grotesque. It’s great.
Before we go I want to take one more paragraph to talk about the film’s visual style. Unfortunately, nothing I type here can capture exactly how astounding Pigeon is to look at. Andersson has a fondness for exaggerated faces and unconventional body types, which are made even more grotesque through white pancake makeup and natty costuming. The characters seem somehow pitched forward across the visual plan, hunched over like looming gargoyles. The color palette is sickly and muted—lots of pea greens, grays, and dull browns. Huge amounts of visual information are conveyed with a few well-chosen props and fastidious production design. The overriding effect is of a diorama populated with hapless homosapien vermin. If Andersson’s dark punchline is human life itself, then his thesis is more than adequately supported by every inch of his deep-focus frame.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is an art house film with a capitol A, R, and T—an invigorating and truly impressive achievement. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, it eschews world building in favor of a world that has already built, lived-in, and has started to decay before the movie even begins. But it’s a beautiful decay, and one you definitely want to experience.