“A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence” & Living Malaise: Film Review

“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”

Honestly, what a movie title! (It’s the entire first sentence of this article.) In that realm, something that sticks can certainly go a long way. That’s what it’s called in English, though most of this movie, which had its world premiere in 2014, features dialogue in Swedish.

The Movie’s Nuts & Bolts

The story ends — or perhaps restarts — with a group of people standing unenthusiastically at a bus stop. A woman holds a drink, and a man begins reacting with mild but persistent incredulity, after comments from a nearby shopkeeper, to how it actually was Wednesday after all. He thought it was Thursday, after all. (Bits of dialogue also repeat throughout the film.)

The film focuses in substantial part on minutiae — or dramatic, sweeping events that prove themselves somewhat blunted because of how out of place the circumstances seem. On the first front, it captures and communicates that vantage point on life of events that, perhaps senselessly, jab at you like indeterminate figures across a canvas in an exhibition of abstract art. Something like a repeated — and often misheard — expression of claimed happiness for someone at the other end of the phone line has its inherent absurdity adeptly exposed.

In this movie, which was directed by Roy Andersson, there’s an entire series of sequences in which a centuries-old Swedish king is suddenly just there — riding off to battle, as it’s eventually revealed.

Beyond the acute threat from his aggressive companions, bystanders didn’t seem particularly surprised by the king being there at all, though this movie doesn’t take place in that era. Later context, involving a character’s sudden veer into a bit part in bizarre colonialist horror, suggests the king’s surprise appearance (without any hint of shock on his part either at his modern surroundings) was imagined, though the culprit doing any imagining goes unidentified, and you get the same impression either way.

Watching the World Go By

This movie expresses an experience of just watching, whether that’s metaphorically seeing a struggling business venture continue languishing, viewing from the audience the interactions in a restaurant only ever seen through a window — even as apparent emotional explosions unfold, overhearing the aforementioned king’s accompanying music from a distance, or something similar. When the world is passing you by, as the saying and feeling go, that’s the perspective reflected by “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” which helps facilitate the compassion from the audience Andersson seemingly wants to evoke.

The movie largely runs on these kinds of circumstances. Things are happening, and in many instances, the people we see are definitely not the ones in control of what’s happening.

The key piece of dialogue that shows up again and again has various characters express how happy they are to hear of someone else doing well, and multiple times, they have to repeat it. Hearing this over and over, you start imagining it’s a nearly endless cycle of congratulations and applause, real or imagined. The film’s events are largely about other events happening someplace else. That king’s battle? Offscreen. Meandering through this movie’s world produces an impression of depressed unrest, which provides a foundation for action involving either what we can do in the real world that’s more constructive — or the chaos sometimes included onscreen.

Events that exist only in reference — it’s a theme that perhaps finds its end within the movie in the moments of shock. It also mirrors so much of what’s seen just in the real world, including modern politics. How many things that are blown into massive proportions in their representations — in media echo chambers, on social media, or just in what people are saying — aren’t actually much of anything and won’t change the way anyone is actually living? The control is someplace else.

This thread, including highlights like the mundane, low-energy response to a death on a ship where among the priorities is figuring out who should get the dead guy’s meal order, draws points through the movie together. Recklessness-induced damage can ensue when developments such as these are treated as something they’re simply not. In other words, don’t get ahead of yourself.

Cinematic Violence and Camera Placement

The violence occasionally seen onscreen in the plot of “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” offsets the pointedly drab colors and slow physical movements, factors that reflect the anxiety of something internal taking shape that’s just out of metaphorical, mental reach. When you’re wondering what you’re going to do next and perhaps staring aimlessly at a wall, that’s the kind of experience this movie captures. Moments between moments — becoming alienated, even from yourself.

The lines about wishing well after someone else’s good fortune are repeatedly spoken over the phone to an unseen and largely unexplained other. Even the veers into narrative arcs that are substantially unrelated (perhaps only by a tangent) to the two characters we see the most exemplify this. The world is happening around them more than they’re happening to it.

The consistency of the visual design, displaying muted colors across the environment that in this context suggest something’s missing, is particularly striking. If a camera itself could experience malaise, it would probably be the equipment used for creating this movie, considering the return to, among other elements, static shots and angles that are sometimes at such a distance that people in the frame seem positioned more like knick-knacks on a shelf than figures we’re getting to know. They’re off in the distance, conducting a tense business discussion through, for instance, a series of open windows — and it’s from there they view the world.

It’s definitely not just a morbid movie, though. That’s not the point. Besides the enjoyably silly slant to some of what’s transpiring, the moments of friendship shared by Jonathan and Sam (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom, respectively), two characters to which the movie often returns, can be touching.

“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” won a Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 2014. It can be streamed online. Find more information right here.

Featured image: Studio 24